State v. Denny

In State v. Denny, 120 Wis. 2d 614, 357 N.W.2d 12 (Ct. App. 1984), affirmed, 163 Wis. 2d 352, 471 N.W.2d 606 (Wis. App. May 15, 1991) the Court considered the standard for relevancy in the context of a defendant's attempt to present evidence that a third party had a motive to commit the crime of first-degree intentional homicide. Denny, 120 Wis. 2d at 622. The trial court excluded that evidence as irrelevant, and Denny appealed, contending he had a constitutional right to present evidence as part of his defense because it was relevant. See 120 Wis. 2d at 621-622. The Court examined the general rule established in other jurisdictions-that the motive of a third party to commit a crime may be excluded when there is no other proof directly connecting that person with the offense charged-in light of the definition of relevancy in Wis. Stat. 904.01. See Denny, 120 Wis. 2d at 622-23. Evidence is relevant if it has "any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more or less probable than it would be without the evidence." Section 904.01. The Court rejected the standard of other jurisdictions, according to which the evidence of a direct connection must be "substantial," and adopted a less strict standard: there must be a "legitimate tendency" that the person could have committed the crime. See Denny, 120 Wis. 2d at 623-25. This test, the Court explained, "asks whether the proffered evidence is so remote in time, place or circumstances that a direct connection cannot be made between the third person and the crime." 120 Wis. 2d at 624. The Court reasoned that evidence that "simply affords a possible ground of suspicion against another person should not be admissible." 120 Wis. 2d at 623. Otherwise "a defendant could conceivably produce evidence tending to show that hundreds of other persons had some motive or animus against the victim-degenerating the proceedings into a trial of collateral issues." 120 Wis. 2d at 623-624. The Court concluded: "Thus as long as motive and opportunity have been shown and as long as there is also some evidence to directly connect a third person to the crime charged which is not remote in time, place or circumstances, the evidence should be admissible." Id. at 624. Applying this standard, the Court concluded that the evidence Denny sought to admit did not meet this standard because, although it may have established motive for a third person, it did not show opportunity or direct connection to the crime. See id. at 625.