Wednesday, March 17, 2010
Can You Corroborate That?: Ninth Circuit Denies Habeas Petition Because Of Uncorroborated Statement Against Interest
A statement which was at the time of its making so far contrary to the declarant's pecuniary or proprietary interest, or so far tended to subject declarant to civil or criminal liability, or to render invalid a claim by declarant against another, that a reasonable man in declarant's position would not have made the statement unless declarant believed it to be true. A statement tending to expose the declarant to criminal liability and offered to exculpate the accused is not admissible unless corroborating circumstances clearly indicate the trustworthiness of the statement.
The main reason for the second sentence in this Rule is the fear that an accused will be able to introduce somebody else's confession to secure a "not guilty verdict," and then the prosecution will not be able to turn around and secure a conviction against the somebody else. A nice illustration of the type of situation that the second sentence seeks to avoid can be found in the recent opinion of the Ninth Circuit in Rhoades v. Henry, 2010 WL 761146 (9th Cir. 2010).
In Henry, Paul Ezra Rhoades was convicted of the first degree murder, first degree kidnapping, and robbery of Stacy Baldwin. Baldwin worked at the Red Mini Barn, and she was apparently abducted by a man driving a pickup truck at around midnight on February 27, 1987. At trial, Rhoades tried to present evidence concerning confessions by Keven Buchholz to the subject crime.
Buchholz was arrested at his parents' home on March 14, 1987, after his father called the police to report a fight. At the jail, Buchholz, while quite drunk, told the officer on duty that evening, Larry Christian, that he had shot the girl from the Mini Barn twice in the back. Christian reported the conversation to his supervisor, then returned. Buchholz repeated that he shot the girl from the Mini Barn twice in the back, had shot several times around the body, and had emptied the gun. Rhoades tried, unsuccessfully, to subpoena Buchholz for trial. He then sought to call Christian to testify to what Buchholz told him.Buchholz recanted the confession once sober, explaining that he was with his family the night of the murder. Family members confirmed this. In addition, Buchholz's fingerprints, hair sample, and shoe prints were taken; none matched anything connected to the crime. The police could not link Buchholz to the murder weapon, and determined that information in his confession could have come from public sources or gossip in the community.
The state moved to exclude Christian's testimony. Rhoades presented an offer of proof indicating that Christian would testify that Buchholz told him he shot the girl twice in the back; shot at her several times; stole a green pickup in Pocatello which he left at Fort Hall; and the gun was either a .38 caliber or a 9mm. The proffer also indicated that shell casings from both sizes were found at the scene. The trial court precluded Christian from testifying because it found that Buchholz's confession lacked sufficient corroboration to be trustworthy, thus Christian's testimony about what Buchholz told him would be hearsay under Rule 804(b)(3) of the Idaho Rules of Evidence.
After he was convicted, Rhoades filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus with the United States District Court for the District of Idaho. The district court denied that petition, and the Ninth Circuit thereafter agreed, finding that
With nothing to back up Buchholz's confession, it was unreliable. The jury would have had no opportunity to evaluate Buchholz's credibility and demeanor; Christian's testimony would have been the only testimony on the issue. Christian's recitation could not realistically have been a major part of Rhoades's defense given the circumstances in which Buchholz's statements were made, his recantation and alibi, and the dearth of independent evidence tying Buchholz to the crime. Further, an evidentiary rule such as Idaho Rule of Evidence 804(b)(3) serves the important role of excluding testimony that lacks significant indicia of reliability....Exclusion of Christian's testimony advances this purpose.