Appealed from: Supreme Court of South Carolina
Oral argument: Feb. 22, 2006
DEATH PENALTY, CRIMINAL PROCEDURE, EVIDENCE, THIRD-PARTY GUILT
Bobby Lee Holmes was charged with murder and other crimes related to a 1989 assault on an eighty-six year old victim. At trial Holmes sought to introduce evidence suggesting that another man, Jimmy McCaw White, was the real killer. South Carolina’s “third-party guilt” rule, however, presented a significant burden that Holmes had to overcome before his evidence could be admitted. The trial court held that Holmes’ proffered evidence did not meet this standard because it merely cast a “bare suspicion” on White, and Holmes was found guilty and sentenced to death. On appeal the Supreme Court of South Carolina held that the trial court applied the correct legal standard for admitting third-party-guilt evidence and affirmed the conviction. The Supreme Court granted certiorari limited to the issue of the validity of the South Carolina rule.
Whether South Carolina’s rule governing the admissibility of third-party guilt evidence violates a criminal defendant's constitutional right to present a complete defense grounded in the Due Process, Confrontation, and Compulsory Process Clauses?
By restricting a criminal defendant’s opportunity to present evidence that someone else is culpable, does South Carolina’s third-party guilt evidence rule violate criminal defendants’ Constitutional rights to a fair trial, due process, and opportunity to obtain and confront witnesses?
At about 8:00 a.m. on December 31, 1989 police officers Dale Edwards, Lt. Barnett, and others responded to a report regarding an elderly woman who had been assaulted, raped, and robbed by a man who forced his way into her home. State v. Holmes, 361 S.C. 333, 336 (S.C. 2004). Before lapsing into mental confusion and eventually dying in March, the eighty-six year old victim told the police that the attack occurred around 6 a.m. Id at 337. She described her assailant as being dark skinned, “middle aged…young [but]…not too young”, and “not too heavy[,] not too slim.” Id. She stated that his hair “was not short or not too long,” and that he wore “a dark jacket” and “a pair of those funny looking pants.” Id. The main evidence the police collected from the victim’s home included bed sheets, some of the victim’s clothing, a blood spattered paper towel, a blood sample from the victim, and palm and fingerprints from parts of the house. Id. Many of these pieces of evidence were placed in bags taken from the victim’s home for transport back to the police station. Id. The victim had taken a shower before the police arrived and a rape kit was not administered because of concern regarding the victim’s physical condition. Id.
Bobby Lee Holmes (Holmes) was already a party of interest to the police officers because he had been at the scene of a nearby disturbance earlier that morning and eluded the officers when a foot chase ensued. Id at 338. One of the officers involved in that incident stated that Holmes had been wearing a black hooded sweater and blue jeans. Id. Police arrested Holmes at his father’s home later that afternoon. Id. At the time Holmes was wearing a black hooded sweatshirt, socks, and underwear and he put on a pair of jeans before being taken into custody. Id. Officers also took as evidence a tank top that appeared to have blood on it. Id.
The prosecution’s case relied heavily on incriminating forensic evidence. Id. Holmes’ palm print was found on the door of the house. Id. Fibers consistent with Holmes’ black sweatshirt were found on the victim’s bed sheets. Id. Matching fibers, though not necessarily from the same source, were found on the victim’s nightgown and Holmes’ jeans and underwear. Id. Holmes’ underwear contained DNA from two individuals, and it was 99.99% certain that it belonged to Holmes and the victim. Id. Holmes’ tank top contained a mixture of the victim’s and his own blood. Id. Holmes argued that the forensics were unreliable because of mishandling and errors. Id at 339. Holmes also proffered evidence that another young black male, Jimmy McCaw White, had committed the crimes. Id. At a pre-trial hearing Holmes presented four “proximity witnesses” who testified that they had seen or heard White near the victim’s apartment around the time of the crime. Id. He also presented five “confession” witnesses who testified that on various occasions subsequent to the crime White admitted to or boasted about committing the crime. Id. White, however, testified at the hearing that he was home by 2 a.m. the morning of the murder. Id. The trial court refused to allow these witnesses to testify at trial and Holmes was convicted and sentenced to death. Id. On appeal, the Supreme Court of South Carolina cited two of its cases that laid out the standard for admitting third-party-guilt evidence and held that, particularly in light of the strong forensic evidence against him, Holmes’ proffered evidence did not meet the standard required for admission and affirmed Holmes’ conviction. Id. at 342-43. On September 27, 2005 the US Supreme Court granted certiorari.
“It wasn’t me, he did it!” It is the age old refrain heard in schoolyards, uttered by both the bully trying to wriggle out of blame and the innocent child incorrectly suspected for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The schoolteacher’s decision whether to buy the story is fraught with peril. Miscalculation may land a model student in detention or let a bully roam free to strike again.
In this case the Supreme Court confronts a much grimmer version of this issue. The Court’s decision stands to most directly impact future defendants who wish to introduce third-party-guilt evidence, as well as prior litigants like Holmes who were prevented from ever doing so. Although Holmes was charged with murder, third-party-guilt defenses are common in many contexts. See e.g. United States v. McCourt, 925 F.2d 1229, 1235 (9th Cir. 1991) (tax fraud); Twilligear v. Mueller, 2002 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 4578 (D. Cal. 2002) (burglary). Amicus curiae assert that third-party guilt issues arise with regularity. Brief of Amicus Curiae of Certain Professors of Evidence Law in Support of Petitioner at 16 [hereinafter Amici Brief].
The Court’s decision will also affect prosecutors, criminal defense lawyers, and judges. Courts evaluate the admissibility of third-party-guilt evidence using diverse sets of factors and varying approaches. Amici Brief at 14-16. The courts also diverge in their interpretation of whether and to what extent the Supreme Court’s decision in Chambers v. Mississippi, 410 U.S. 284, 302 (1973), is applicable to the issue of third-party-guilt evidence. Amici Brief at 16-19. The Court may take this opportunity to clarify the scope and status of Chambers and provide guidance to attorneys and judges regarding the lawful limits of state evidence rules. On the other hand, the Court may avoid a broad judgment and limit its holding to the specifics of this case and the South Carolina rule. Such an outcome is likely because the Court only granted certiorari limited to the question of the constitutionality of the South Carolina rule, and declined to consider the broader due process question. Holmes v. South Carolina, 126 S. Ct. 34 (U.S. 2005).
South Carolina police departments may also feel pressure to change their operating procedures in response to the outcome of this case. On the one hand, a decision upholding the South Carolina rule will make forensic evidence implicating a defendant even more vital to the prosecution than it is already. Prosecutors will seek to present a great amount of forensic evidence implicating the defendant, so that defense efforts to implicate third-parties will be severely hampered. As a result, there would likely be increased pressure on police departments and forensics labs to comprehensively and accurately collect and assess forensic evidence. A decision in favor of Holmes and invalidating the South Carolina rule, on the other hand, may require police and prosecutors to be considerably more thorough in investigating and eliminating other individuals as suspects.
The central question in this case is whether the South Carolina Supreme Court erred in denying criminal defendant Bobby Lee Holmes the right to introduce evidence of third-party-guilt to show that there was another possible suspect in the assault and rape of an elderly woman. In deciding this case, the U.S. Supreme Court must balance a criminal defendants’ right to present a full defense against the states’ interest in ensuring that only the most reliable evidence is used at trial. See Brief of Respondent at 30. It is undisputed that states have the power to shape their procedural rules of evidence. See Id. at 30. Ensuring that only the most reliable evidence is used at trial is fundamental to the administration of justice. A secondary conflict in this case is the competing interests of the state and federal Constitution in protecting the administration of justice in criminal trials. See Id. at 35.
In South Carolina, a criminal defendant cannot introduce third-party-guilt evidence if, when compared directly against the prosecution’s evidence, it fails to create a reasonable inference of innocence. Brief for Petitioner at i. Furthermore, South Carolina finds that if the prosecution presents strong forensic evidence, a defendant’s third-party-guilt evidence is per se inadmissible. Id. at i. Petitioners contest the constitutionality of this standard. Respondents contend that petitioners are requesting that the Supreme Court create uniform evidentiary standards for all states to follow under the guise of a constitutional violation. Brief of Respondents at 35.
Criminal defendants enjoy special Constitutional protection. The following Constitutional protections are at stake in this case: the right to due process of the law under the Fourteenth Amendment, the right to confront witnesses under the Confrontation Clause, the right to present a full defense by putting on witnesses, also known as the right to compulsory process, and the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial.
The right to due process of the law is the broadest protection that all Americans have against being deprived of their life, liberty, or property. Many fundamental rights are derived from the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause. See Brief for Petitioner at 35. One such right is the right to compulsory process, which allows defendants to call witnesses to testify on their behalf. Chambers v. Mississippi, 410 U.S. 284, 302 (1973). Petitioner sought to introduce the testimony of a third-party suspect, White, who he claims was the true perpetrator of this crime. Petitioner wanted to present out of court statements made by the third-party and other witnesses to show the following: that the third-party confessed, that the third-party was in the vicinity of the victim’s apartment, that the third-party more closely matched the victim’s description of the perpetrator, and that the third-party, like the petitioner, was attracted to older women. See Brief for Petitioner at 48. By not being permitted to present a single piece of third-party-guilt evidence, petitioner was unable to develop his defense and had no hope of creating a reasonable inference of innocence.
Petitioner also argues that the South Carolina standards deprive him of his Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury. By creating a per se exclusion standard for third-party-guilt evidence when presented against strong forensic evidence, petitioner believes that trial judges are given undue deference in determining the admissibility of evidence. He argues that this expressly displaces the function of the jury as a fact-finding body. Brief for Petitioner at 24. By granting judges the power to make such per se determinations, South Carolina undermines the jury institution. Id. at 24, 31. As the triers of fact, jurors must have the opportunity to weigh evidence presented and evaluate the credibility of witnesses before the court. Id. at 25. Petitioner contests that South Carolina fails to honor the strict “division of labor” which delegates questions of law to judges and questions of fact to the jury. Id. at 25.
Respondent finds these claims unfounded. See id. at 41. Judges have a gate-keeping function in the courts. Brief of Respondents at 38. Preliminary questions surrounding the admissibility of evidence are often resolved by the court. Id. This is consistent with the South Carolina Rule of Evidence 104 as well as the Federal Rule of Evidence 104. Respondent points out that relevancy is but the first hurdle to admissibility and subsequent evidentiary barriers such as hearsay, prejudice, and jury confusion can render perfectly relevant evidence inadmissible at trial. Brief for Petitioner at 33. Although petitioner concedes that the admissibility of evidence is conditional under both federal and state evidentiary rules, he maintains that it is unacceptable for a criminal defendant to have to overcome both the prosecution’s evidence and the prosecution’s burden of proof. See Id. at 43.
The U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether South Carolina’s standards for admitting third-party-guilt evidence fulfill important state and federal interests in achieving two goals: ensuring (1) the fair administration of justice and (2) that only the most reliable evidence is presented at court. This case has important implications for criminal defendants in presenting a full defense as well as for prosecutors and police departments in preparing their cases using new technologies such as forensics that some believe are error-proof.
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