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Holmes V. South Carolina, 547 U.S. 319 (2006)

By melshoe Mar 24, 2011 1331 Words
Holmes v. South Carolina,
547 U.S. 319 (2006)
I. Facts:
In 1995, a South Carolina jury convicted and sentenced to death, petitioner, Bobby Lee Holmes, for the “murder, first-degree criminal sexual assault, first-degree burglary, and robbery,” of 86-year-old Mary Stewart. State v. Holmes, 320 S.C. 259, 262, 464 S.E. 2d 334, 336 (1995). The defendant sought to present evidence that another party committed the crimes for which he stood trial. Id. Holmes’ defense cited information from witnesses that the other party, Jimmy McCaw White, bragged about committing the crime, following the victim’s death. White denied this under oath, claiming an alibi, which other witnesses refuted. Additionally, the defense fervently argued police tainted forensic evidence with a sloppy investigation, and an attempt to frame the defendant for the murder. Holmes, v. South Carolina, (No. 04-1327), 361 S. C. 333, 605 S. E. 2d 19.

The trial court refused to allow the defense to enter the third-party evidence, citing State v. Gregory, 198 S. C. 98, 16 S. E. 2d 532 (1941). In Gregory, the court held that evidence of third-party guilt “is admissible if it ‘raise[s] a reasonable inference or presumption as to [the defendant’s] own innocence’ but it is not admissible if it merely ‘cast[s] a bare suspicion upon… another’… as to the commission of the crime by another’.’” The judge declared the seemingly overwhelming forensic evidence of the defendant’s guilt far outweighed any possible evidence another party committed the crimes. Holmes v. South Carolina, supra. On appeal, the South Carolina Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s decision to exclude the evidence. Holmes v. S.C., Oyez Supreme Court Media, The Supreme Court disagreed and granted certiorari. Holmes v. South Carolina, supra. II. Issue:

At issue in Holmes, is whether the South Carolina rulings, prohibiting evidence of third-party guilt, violated the defendant’s Fourteenth Amendment right to due process, and/or the compulsory process or confrontation clauses of the Sixth Amendment. Id. 1.Does the defendant have a right to introduce evidence of guilt of a third party to uphold his Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment rights? 2.If the defendant possesses the right to offer this evidence, and the courts violated that right, does the law provide a remedy to correct the violation? 3.If the law provides a remedy, is it within the power of the Supreme Court to issue the writ of certiorari requested under that remedy? Decision and Action:

To 1.Yes. According to the Supreme Court, the defendant possesses the right to introduce evidence of third-party guilt. To 2.Yes, a writ of certiorari is the legal remedy provided by law. To 3.Yes, the Supreme Court possesses lawful jurisdiction to grant certiorari, and vacates the ruling of the South Carolina Supreme Court remanding “the case for further proceedings” in line with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling. Holmes v. South Carolina, supra. Unanimous, 9-0: “Remanded.” Holmes v. South Carolina, supra. Rule: Landmark case establishing to refuse the defendant’s opportunity to introduce evidence of third-party guilt is in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment right to due process, and the compulsory process or confrontation… Sixth Amendment. Holmes v. South Carolina, supra. III. Analysis:

Justice Alito delivered the opinion of the court.
1.The Supreme Court previously held that the Constitution allows the courts “to exclude evidence that is ‘repetitive . . ., only marginally relevant’ or poses an undue risk of ‘harassment, prejudice, [or] confusion of the issues.’” Id. Specifically, this principle seeks to regulate admission of inconsequential evidence indicating someone other than the defendant committed the crime charged. Id. 2.Federal Rules of Evidence hold that “evidence may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, or misleading the jury, …undue delay, waste of time, or needless presentation of cumulative evidence.” Fed. R. Evid. 403. This rule provides no mandate for exclusion…, but leaves the decision to the discretion of the court. The Supreme Court ruled that no manner exists for courts to render fair and informed decisions for excluding evidence until it impartially weighs the third-party evidence against evidence of the defendant’s guilt. 3.Alternatively, evidence suggesting another’s guilt “may be introduced when it is inconsistent with, and raises a reasonable doubt of defendant’s own guilt,” if such evidence adequately implicates the third party in the crime, as in this case. Id. 4.In Holmes, the South Carolina Court followed flawed logic in pronouncing that since the prosecution’s evidence was so strong, the defendant’s “evidence of third-party guilt must be weak.” Id. This logic only holds if the court evaluates the strength of the prosecution’s evidence by “considering challenges to the reliability of that evidence.” Id. The courts must assess the prosecution’s evidence as such when the defense calls the integrity of that evidence into question; an assessment they “did not purport to make in this case.” Id. 5.The trial court and the South Carolina Supreme Court failed to question the credibility of the prosecution’s case, although “the defense strenuously claimed the prosecution’s forensic evidence was so unreliable…that the evidence should not even be admitted.” Id. 6.In short, “the rule is ‘arbitrary’ in the sense that it does not rationally serve” the interest of justice, both for the defendant and the courts. “The Constitution guarantees criminal defendants "a meaningful opportunity to present a complete defense,” thus, the petitioner was denied due process as directed by the Fourteenth Amendment. California v. Trombetta, 467 U.S. 479 (1984). IV. Conclusion:

The rule of law makes no guarantee that court’s must always allow defense evidence of third-party guilt; however, in the case of Holmes, the trial court, and the South Carolina Supreme Court, decision to exclude defendant’s evidence is based on illogical reasoning. In light of the vigorous assertions by the defense that poor police work tainted forensic (DNA) evidence, and the possibility police attempted to frame the defendant, the court possessed an obligation, at least, to examine both sides of the evidence before determining the credibility of defense evidence…

The Supreme Court ruling in this case highlights the flawed logic in the prior courts’ decision to exclude the defendant’s evidence to prove another party committed the crime. No evidence existed to suggest the defense evidence would confuse the issues, prejudice, or mislead …, or waste the time of the court. The decision violated defendant’s rights.


No dissents.

U.S. CONST. amend. VI.
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury…to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence. U.S. CONST. amend. XIV, § 1.

...No State shall…deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. Amendment XIV, Section 2.


Fed. R. Evid. 403.

Although relevant, evidence may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, or misleading the jury, or by considerations of undue delay, waste of time, or needless presentation of cumulative evidence. (last accessed May 8, 2009).

California v. Trombetta, 467 U.S. 479 (1984).
Holmes v. South Carolina, 547 U.S. 319 (2006).
State v. Gregory, 198 S. C. 98, 16 S. E. 2d 532 (1941)

Holmes, Bobby v. South Carolina, Case Reference, (last accessed May 6, 2009). Holmes v. S.C., Oyez Supreme Court Media, (last accessed May 6, 2009).

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