Winfield v. US

Decision Date24 April 1996
Docket NumberNo. 92-CF-723.,92-CF-723.
Citation676 A.2d 1
PartiesReginald WINFIELD, Appellant, v. UNITED STATES, Appellee.
CourtD.C. Court of Appeals

Sandra Levick, Public Defender Service, with whom James Klein and Samia Fam, Public Defender Service, Washington, DC, were on the brief, filed a brief amicus curiae and argued on behalf of appellant.

Jensen E. Barber, Washington, DC, filed a brief for appellant.

Thomas C. Black, Assistant United States Attorney, with whom Eric H. Holder, Jr., United States Attorney, and J. Ramsey Johnson, John R. Fisher, Silvia L. Gonzalez, and Miriam M. Smolen, Assistant United States Attorneys, Washington, DC, were on the brief, for appellee.

Before WAGNER, Chief Judge, and FERREN, TERRY, STEADMAN, SCHWELB, FARRELL, KING, RUIZ, and REID, Associate Judges.

FARRELL, Associate Judge:

We granted rehearing en banc in this case to consider the standards governing the admissibility of evidence proffered by a criminal defendant that another person or persons committed the crime alleged.1 The issue arises at the intersection of the defendant's constitutional right to an opportunity to present a complete defense, Crane v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 683, 690, 106 S.Ct. 2142, 2146, 90 L.Ed.2d 636 (1986), and the obligation of the trial court preliminarily to determine the relevance of proffered evidence and weigh its probative value against the potential it creates for undue prejudice. The issue arises specifically because of continued uncertainty, reflected in the trial judge's ruling in this case, over the meaning and continued legitimacy of a principle enunciated by this court in Brown v. United States, 409 A.2d 1093 (D.C.1979). See also Beale v. United States, 465 A.2d 796, 803 (D.C.1983), cert. denied, 465 U.S. 1030, 104 S.Ct. 1293, 79 L.Ed.2d 694 (1984). Under the so-called Brown-Beale principle, "before evidence of the guilt of another can be deemed relevant and thereby admissible, the evidence must clearly link that other person to the commission of the crime." Id. at 1097 (emphasis added).

This principle has long seemed in tension with the standard of relevance applied generally in this jurisdiction, which defines relevant evidence simply as "that which tends to make the existence or nonexistence of a fact more or less probable than would be the case without that evidence." Punch v. United States, 377 A.2d 1353, 1358 (D.C.1977), cert. denied, 435 U.S. 955, 98 S.Ct. 1586, 55 L.Ed.2d 806 (1978); see also FED.R.EVID. 401. That the prior effort of a division to harmonize the "clear link" principle and the usual standard of relevance, see Johnson v. United States, 552 A.2d 513, 516 (D.C.1989), has not settled the issue is apparent from this case and from the representation of the Public Defender Service, not seriously disputed by the government, that the former principle continues to "create confusion for trial judges." Although we recognize the difficulty of laying down principles concrete enough to guide meaningfully decisions on the admissibility of nonprivileged, nonhearsay evidence, we undertake a modest effort at clarification here.

We conclude that the phrase "clearly linked" is unhelpful and should be discarded from our lexicon of terms governing the admissibility of third-party perpetrator evidence. We hold that there is only one standard of relevance, that set forth in Punch, supra, as explicated below. At the same time, as the division correctly recognized in this case, evidence of motivation of a third party to commit the crime charged risks distracting the jury from the issue of this defendant's guilt or innocence, and in applying the relevance standard the judge may properly take account of that danger. We further hold, under the standards we announce and on the facts proffered here to support the claim of third-party perpetration, that the trial judge should not have excluded the evidence.

I. The Proffer

The evidence presented by the government, which resulted in appellant's conviction for (inter alia) armed first degree murder, is summarized in the division opinion, supra note 1. While the proof of guilt was substantial, including the testimony of three eyewitnesses that appellant chased down and fatally shot Deborah Davis in Southeast Washington on the night of July 26, 1990, the evidence identified no motive for appellant to have committed the shooting.

The government and the defense each filed in limine motions (the government's in opposition) concerning appellant's desire to present evidence that a third person or persons had done the shooting without appellant's complicity. The defense proffered (and the government did not dispute) that Deborah Davis, James Bias and Freddie Artis had committed an armed robbery together in the District of Columbia during the third week of June, 1990. All had been arrested and charged with the offense, but only Bias was detained. Upon her release from custody, Davis had begun cooperating with the government in its investigation of the crime. According to the defense proffer, on June 26, 1990, Davis was kidnapped from the District of Columbia and taken to Maryland by Artis, who was joined at some point in the abduction by Edward Huff. Artis told Davis that he was going to kill her because he feared she was "snitching." He and Huff then stabbed her, shot her, and left her for dead in a wooded area in Prince George's County.

Davis survived the murder attempt and identified Artis and Huff as her assailants. Artis, charged in both Maryland and the District, was arrested on June 28, 1990 (Bias remained in jail), but Huff, though charged in Maryland, was still at liberty. Evidently cooperating with the government's investigation of the abduction, Davis testified before the grand jury on July 26, 1990. Later that day, according to the defense proffer, she called her mother and said, "They're after me, They are going to get me. The word is out on the street."2 That same night Davis was shot dead outside a housing project. According to the proffer, when the male assailant shot Davis he was heard to say, "You won't tell this."3 The defense contended that appellant was not connected with Artis, Huff or Bias, and in fact no evidence linking him to them was adduced at trial. The government, on the other hand, represented that a photograph of Huff had been placed in a photo array and shown to several witnesses, none of whom identified him as the shooter.

II. The Trial Court's Ruling

The trial judge found the evidence that Huff had a motive to kill Davis "compelling," but reasoned — in apparent reliance on the Brown-Beale principle — that the ultimate issue is "whether or not Mr. Huff or any other person is clearly connected to the shooting itself" (emphasis added). Answering in the negative, the judge found significant the absence of any proffered evidence: (1) that anyone who had been able to view the shooter identified Huff as the shooter even though some had looked at a photo array that included his picture; (2) that Huff was anywhere near the scene of the murder that night or knew where Davis could be located at the time; and (3) that Huff knew that Davis had testified in the grand jury that day. The judge found the words assertedly spoken by the killer ("You won't tell this") "not so distinctive that they necessarily tie Mr. Huff to the shooting" (emphasis added). The judge reasoned, in sum:

The inherent ambiguity of this evidence supposedly linking Mr. Huff to the murder would not . . . tend to create a reasonable doubt that the defendant who was apparently known by many of the eyewitnesses did not sic commit the offense.
Furthermore, given the quality of the evidence proffered and even assuming its relevance, its probity . . . in clearly linking Mr. Huff to the murder is so weak and the resulting potential of the evidence to confuse and mislead the jury so great that the Court concludes that on the state of the present record the defense should be precluded from presenting any evidence to show that Mr. Huff may have killed the decedent. . . . Emphasis added.
III. Discussion

The trial judge's analysis reflects the lingering notion in our decisions that relevance means something different as regards evidence that a third party committed a crime than it does in other contexts. We now make clear that it does not. A division of this court endeavored to say so in Johnson v. United States, supra, by defining "what we mean by `clearly link,' as used first by this court in Brown, supra, 409 A.2d at 1097." Johnson, 552 A.2d at 516. That phrase, the division explained, means that there must be "proof of facts or circumstances which tend to indicate some reasonable possibility that a person other than the defendant committed the charged offense." Id. The "focus" of the standard is not on the third party's guilt or innocence, but on "the effect the evidence has upon the defendant's culpability," and in this regard it "need only tend to create a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the offense." Id. at 517 (emphasis in original). By thus employing the verb "tend," the division explicitly tied the relevance standard to the usual meaning of that concept. See Punch, 377 A.2d at 1358 (relevant evidence is "that which tends to make the existence or nonexistence of a fact more or less probable" (emphasis added)); FED.R.EVID. 401 (relevant evidence is "evidence having any tendency to make the existence of any fact . . . more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence"). Correlatively, the division stated, "there is no requirement that the proffered evidence must prove or even raise a strong probability that someone other than the defendant committed the offense." Johnson, 552 A.2d at 517.

Sitting en banc, we now adopt the "reasonable possibility" formulation of Johnson and its conclusion that relevance here means what it generally does in the criminal context, requiring a "link,...

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