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.
The trial court excluded evidence suggesting that a third party had confessed to killing 86 year old Mary Stewart. Why? On the grounds that the evidence against the defendant was so powerful that any evidence implicating the third party could not raise a reasonable inference that the defendant was innocent. To put it another way, the case against Holmes was so good that the state was allowed to exclude evidence that another guy did it. No need to bother the jury with messy details. The South Carolina Supremes thought this was a fine idea as well.
This didn’t look like a hard case to me and the 9-0 vote thankfully confirmed that feeling. If a defendant possesses reasonably relevant evidence on the issue of guilt, we generally let the jury hear it. When, as here, a judge keeps this information from the jury, he or she effectively decides the outcome of a case. In rejecting this policy as unconstitutional, Justices Alito and Roberts proved that whatever their ultimate ideological place on the Court, they are not completely off the deep edge.
More interesting to me, though, is what was missing from the decision. Alito did not note that this was a death penalty case. His opinion stated that Holmes received a death sentence after his first trial, and that this trial and sentence were reversed by a state court. But nowhere in the opinion did he say that this new appeal was also from a death sentence. Why is that? Perhaps it was an oversight. Or maybe Alito thought the underlying sentence was an unnecessary fact. If so, why did Alito note Holmes’ capital sentence after his first trial? Perhaps he didn’t want to highlight this as a death case. He might have felt uncomfortable reversing a death sentence in a heinous killing. Or maybe he didn’t want the case framed as a “death decision” – with all the attendant baggage – and instead cast it as a plain old evidence ruling.
This is a small detail to be sure, but Alito surely knew his first opinion would go under a microscope. The odds are that this omission was not strategic. But if it was, I certainly hope that it does not portend a broader willingness to omit uncomfortable facts.