02 May 2006

You Have to Let Me Prove Another Guy Did it

Justice Alito issued his first opinion for the federal supreme court this week in a 9-0 decision: Holmes v. South Carolina. In it he decides that a trial court cannot exclude evidence that an individual other than the accused may have committed a crime because the trial judge finds the government's evidence- if believed - to be overwhelming (S.C. had a rule which required this). The opinion seems to have been written fairly cautiously with care taken to make sure every point was well supported from prior case law. It's also worth noting that the decision did not stray into the emotion - which often seems to be the unstated, underlying theme of any number of decisions in cases wherein horrible things have happened. Instead, it stayed on target and established a legal point which can be broadly and equitably applied. If this opinion proves to be typical, I think that Orin is correct that Alito will be more of a traditional Harlan II type conservative who justifies things through a strong reliance upon and adherence to precedent. Still, it's too early to really know. Check back with me in 5 years and see what I think of his crimlaw jurisprudence.

Here's what others have said about this opinion:

OrinKerr.com: "My speculation is that Roberts and Alito will end up harkening back to an older kind of judicial conservatism — a conservatism more like Justice Harlan or Justice Frankfurter than Scalia or Bork."

ACS Blog: "Though Holmes won this round, it seems unlikely that the removal of the State v Gay evidentiary standard will ultimately matter much for his case. South Carolina didn't address the proper procedural questions in excluding Holmes' third-party evidence, but it probably can on remand. If it didn't previously characterize that evidence as "speculative or remote," in other words, we can be sure that it will do so now."

Concurring Opinions: "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."

TalkLeft: "The holding is such a no-brainer that it tells us little about Justice Alito or the Chief Justice, although this is the kind of case that might have provoked a lone dissent from the extraordinarily pro-prosecution Chief Justice Rehnquist."

LegalTimes.com: "It was a case in which actual innocence was claimed, coming from a state whose handling of capital cases has troubled the Court in the past. One sign South Carolina was in trouble came during oral argument in February, when conservative Justice Clarence Thomas asked a question — almost unheard of for him — and it was hostile to the state."

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As a side note I would like point out that great minds think alike. I was judging a moot court competition at University of Richmond School of Law based upon this case and I asked every student I graded whether the rule in question wouldn't be ridiculous if applied to exclude the prosecution's evidence if the defense could put together evidence which, if strongly believed, would mean the prosecution's evidence wasn't true. Then I read the decision and lo and behold:
The rule applied in this case is no more logical than its converse would be, i.e., a rule barring the prosecution from introducing evidence of a defendant's guilt if the defendant is able to proffer, at a pretrial hearing, evidence that, if believed, strongly supports a verdict of not guilty. In the present case, for example, the petitioner proffered evidence that, if believed, squarely proved that White, not petitioner, was the perpetrator. It would make no sense, however, to hold that this proffer precluded the prosecution from introducing its evidence, including the forensic evidence that, if credited, provided strong proof of the petitioner's guilt.
See, I told ya'll I'd be a great Supreme Court Justice.

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