Holmes v. South Carolina

Citation126 S. Ct. 1727,164 L. Ed. 2d 503,547 U.S. 319
Decision Date01 May 2006
Docket NumberNo. 04-1327.,04-1327.
PartiesHOLMES <I>v.</I> SOUTH CAROLINA
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

At petitioner's South Carolina trial for murder and related crimes, the prosecution relied heavily on forensic evidence that strongly supported petitioner's guilt. Petitioner sought to undermine the State's forensic evidence by introducing expert testimony suggesting that the evidence had been contaminated and that the police had engaged in a plot to frame him. Petitioner also sought to introduce evidence that another man, Jimmy McCaw White, had been in the victim's neighborhood on the morning of the assault and that White had either acknowledged petitioner's innocence or admitted to committing the crimes himself. In White's pretrial testimony, he denied making the incriminating statements and provided an alibi for the time of the assault.

The trial court excluded petitioner's third-party guilt evidence citing the State Supreme Court's Gregory decision, which held such evidence admissible if it raises a reasonable inference as to the defendant's own innocence, but inadmissible if it merely casts a bare suspicion or raises a conjectural inference as to another's guilt. Affirming the trial court, the State Supreme Court cited both Gregory and its later decision in Gay, and held that where there is strong forensic evidence of an appellant's guilt, proffered evidence about a third party's alleged guilt does not raise a reasonable inference as to the appellant's own innocence. Applying this standard, the court held that petitioner could not overcome the forensic evidence against him.

Held: A criminal defendant's federal constitutional rights are violated by an evidence rule under which the defendant may not introduce evidence of third-party guilt if the prosecution has introduced forensic evidence that, if believed, strongly supports a guilty verdict. "[S]tate and federal rulemakers have broad latitude under the Constitution to establish rules excluding evidence from criminal trials." United States v. Scheffer, 523 U. S. 303, 308. This latitude, however, has limits. "Whether rooted directly in the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment or in the Compulsory Process or Confrontation Clauses of the Sixth Amendment, the Constitution guarantees criminal defendants `a meaningful opportunity to present a complete defense.'" Crane v. Kentucky, 476 U. S. 683, 690. This right is abridged by evidence rules that "infring[e] upon a weighty interest of the accused" and are "`arbitrary' or `disproportionate to the purposes they are designed to serve.'" Scheffer, supra, at 308.

While the Constitution thus prohibits the exclusion of defense evidence under rules that serve no legitimate purpose or that are disproportionate to the ends that they are asserted to promote, well-established rules of evidence permit trial judges to exclude evidence if its probative value is outweighed by certain other factors such as unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, or potential to mislead the jury. An application of this principle is found in rules regulating the admission of evidence proffered by criminal defendants to show that someone else committed the crime with which they are charged. Such rules are widely accepted and are not challenged here.

In Gregory, the South Carolina Supreme Court adopted and applied a rule intended to be of this type. In Gay and this case, however, that court radically changed and extended the Gregory rule by holding that, where there is strong evidence of a defendant's guilt, especially strong forensic evidence, proffered evidence about a third party's alleged guilt may (or perhaps must) be excluded. Under this rule, the trial judge does not focus on the probative value or the potential adverse effects of admitting the defense evidence of third-party guilt. Instead, the critical inquiry concerns the strength of the prosecution's case: If the prosecution's case is strong enough, the evidence of third-party guilt is excluded even if that evidence, if viewed independently, would have great probative value and even if it would not pose an undue risk of harassment, prejudice, or confusion of the issues. Furthermore, as applied below, the rule seems to call for little, if any, examination of the credibility of the prosecution's witnesses or the reliability of its evidence.

By evaluating the strength of only one party's evidence, no logical conclusion can be reached regarding the strength of contrary evidence offered by the other side to rebut or cast doubt. Because the rule applied below did not heed this point, the rule is "arbitrary" in the sense that it does not rationally serve the end that the Gregory rule and other similar third-party guilt rules were designed to further. Nor has the State identified any other legitimate end served by the rule. Thus, the rule violates a criminal defendant's right to have "`a meaningful opportunity to present a complete defense.'" Crane, supra, at 690. Pp. 324-331.

361 S. C. 333, 605 S. E. 2d 19, vacated and remanded.

ALITO, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF SOUTH CAROLINA

John H. Blume argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs were William A. Norris, Edward P. Lazarus Michael C. Small, Mark J. MacDougall, Jeffrey P. Kehne, and Sheri L. Johnson.

Donald J. Zelenka, Assistant Deputy Attorney General of South Carolina, argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief were Henry D. McMaster, Attorney General, and John W. McIntosh, Chief Deputy Attorney General.

Steffen N. Johnson argued the cause for the State of Kansas et al. as amici curiae urging affirmance. With him on the brief were Phill Kline, Attorney General of Kansas, Jared Maag, Deputy Attorney General, and Gene C. Schaerr, and the Attorneys General for their respective States as follows: Troy King of Alabama, Terry Goddard of Arizona, Mike Beebe of Arkansas, John W. Suthers of Colorado, Carl C. Danberg of Delaware, Mark J. Bennett of Hawaii, Lawrence Wasden of Idaho, Gregory D. Stumbo of Kentucky, Michael A. Cox of Michigan, Jim Hood of Mississippi, Jeremiah W. (Jay) Nixon of Missouri, George J. Chanos of Nevada, W. A. Drew Edmondson of Oklahoma, Hardy Myers of Oregon, Thomas W. Corbett, Jr., of Pennsylvania, Lawrence E. Long of South Dakota, and Greg Abbott of Texas.*

JUSTICE ALITO delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents the question whether a criminal defendant's federal constitutional rights are violated by an evidence rule under which the defendant may not introduce proof of third-party guilt if the prosecution has introduced forensic evidence that, if believed, strongly supports a guilty verdict.

I

On the morning of December 31, 1989, 86-year-old Mary Stewart was beaten, raped, and robbed in her home. She later died of complications stemming from her injuries. Petitioner was convicted by a South Carolina jury of murder, first-degree criminal sexual conduct, first-degree burglary, and robbery, and he was sentenced to death. State v. Holmes, 320 S. C. 259, 262, 464 S. E. 2d 334, 336 (1995). The South Carolina Supreme Court affirmed his convictions and sentence, and this Court denied certiorari. Ibid., cert. denied, 517 U. S. 1248 (1996). Upon state postconviction review, however, petitioner was granted a new trial. 361 S. C. 333, 335, n. 1, 605 S. E. 2d 19, 20, n. 1 (2004).

At the second trial, the prosecution relied heavily on the following forensic evidence:

"(1) [Petitioner's] palm print was found just above the door knob on the interior side of the front door of the victim's house; (2) fibers consistent with a black sweat-shirt owned by [petitioner] were found on the victim's bed sheets; (3) matching blue fibers were found on the victim's pink nightgown and on [petitioner's] blue jeans; (4) microscopically consistent fibers were found on the pink nightgown and on [petitioner's] underwear; (5) [petitioner's] underwear contained a mixture of DNA from two individuals, and 99.99% of the population other than [petitioner] and the victim were excluded as contributors to that mixture; and (6) [petitioner's] tank top was found to contain a mixture of [petitioner's] blood and the victim's blood." Id., at 343, 605 S. E. 2d, at 24.

In addition, the prosecution introduced evidence that petitioner had been seen near Stewart's home within an hour of the time when, according to the prosecution's evidence, the attack took place. Id., at 337-338, 343, 605 S. E. 2d, at 21, 24.

As a major part of his defense, petitioner attempted to undermine the State's forensic evidence by suggesting that it had been contaminated and that certain law enforcement officers had engaged in a plot to frame him. Id., at 339, 605 S. E. 2d, at 22. Petitioner's expert witnesses criticized the procedures used by the police in handling the fiber and DNA evidence and in collecting the fingerprint evidence. App. 299-311, 313-323. Another defense expert provided testimony that petitioner cited as supporting his claim that the palm print had been planted by the police. Id., at 326-327.

Petitioner also sought to introduce proof that another man, Jimmy McCaw White, had attacked Stewart. 361 S. C., at 340, 605 S. E. 2d, at 22. At a pretrial hearing, petitioner proffered several witnesses who placed White in the victim's neighborhood on the morning of the assault, as well as four other witnesses who testified that White had either acknowledged that petitioner was "`innocent'" or had actually admitted to committing the crimes. Id., at 340-342, 605 S. E. 2d, at 22-23. One witness recounted that when he asked White about the "word . . . on the street" that White was responsible for Stewart's murder, White "put his head down and he raised his head back up and he said, well, you know I like older women." App. 119. According to this witness, White added that "he did what they say he did" and...

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