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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

No Alternative: Maine Supreme Judicial Court Affirms Exclusion of Alternative Suspect Theory

In my last post, I discussed State v. Mitchell, --- A.2d ---, 2010 WL 3034607 (Me. Aug. 5, 2010), wherein the Supreme Judicial Court of Maine held that use of an autopsy report did not deprive a murder defendant of his rights under the Confrontation Clause despite his inability to cross-examine the report's author.

This post discusses the trial court's rejection of the defendant's proffered evidence of an alternative suspect, a ruling affirmed on appeal (with one justice dissenting).  Thomas Mitchell, charged with a 1983 murder, wished to introduce evidence supporting a theory that the crime was committed by the victim's neighbor.  To review the trial court's rejection of the alternative suspect evidence, the Supreme Judicial Court considered Maine Rule of Evidence 403, which is identical to the analogous federal rule, along with constitutional doctrines protecting the accused’s opportunity to present a complete defense.

Maine Rule of Evidence 403 provides:

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.

For evidence regarding alternative suspects, Maine courts will admit evidence

if (1) the  offered proof is admissible at trial, and (2) the admissible evidence “is of sufficient probative value to raise a reasonable doubt as to the defendant’s culpability” by establishing a reasonable connection between the alternative suspect and the crime. ... A defendant may establish a reasonable connection between the alternative suspect and the crime without clearly linking the alternative suspect to the crime, as is required in some other jurisdictions. ... In short, whether to admit alternative suspect evidence of any variety depends on both the admissibility of the information contained in the offer of proof and the probative value of the proffered evidence in establishing a reasonable connection between the alternative suspect and the crime.

Mitchell, at ¶25, ¶27, ¶30 (internal citation omitted).  In Mitchell, the defendant was linked to the crime by DNA evidence, including material found in the victim's mouth and under her fingernails.  The state's expert concluded that "The probability of a random match was one in 69.4 quadrillion."  Id. at ¶16.  Other evidence against Mitchell was quite strong.  Id. at ¶2-¶17.

To rebut the state's case, Mitchell attempted to show that another man had committed the murder.  Reviewing the proffered alternative suspect evidence, the court noted, "The only physical evidence offered by Mitchell that could reasonably connect the neighbor to the crime scene was the evidence connecting a pair of shoes owned by the neighbor to the shoe print evidence that was preserved at the crime scene.  A lay witness was prepared to testify that the neighbor’s shoes were 'similar to' the shoe model that Mitchell owned and that 'the sole design of that model may resemble the one on [the neighbor’s] shoe'” (brackets in original).  Finding this lay testimony inadmissible under Maine Rule of Evidence 701 (which concerns opinion testimony by lay witnesses), id. at ¶36, the court reviewed the remaining evidence at issue:

Assuming for purposes of our analysis that all of the other proof that Mitchell offered was admissible, we conclude that the court acted within the bounds of its discretion by excluding the alternative suspect evidence.  Mitchell offered proof that the neighbor had a two-tone car [as did Mitchell, and such a car was seen near the victim's house], that he resembled the composite picture that the police developed with the mail carrier [who saw the car], that he had been violent before, that he did not necessarily like Flagg [the victim], that his alibi was unsubstantiated, that his behavior was strange after the murder, and that he could not be ruled out as the source of two indistinct fingerprints.  These facts provide only weak proof of motive or propensity, and only moderately probative evidence of opportunity, mistaken identity, or suspicious post-crime behavior.

Id. at ¶38.  The court  found that  the evidence "did not rise above the level of speculation and did not establish a reasonable connection between the neighbor and the crime" and accordingly found no abuse of discretion in the trial court's exclusion.

In dissent, Justice Silver argued that "Mitchell met the reasonable-connection standard."  Id. at ¶51.

Mitchell proffered evidence including the description of a man seen driving suspiciously from the area and testimony that the neighbor fit the description and owned a similar car and clothing to the man; testimony that the shoe impressions taken from the scene were from a brand of shoe that the neighbor was known to own; evidence that the neighbor was violent; evidence that the neighbor dated a friend of the victim and that the victim had interfered in an argument between the neighbor and the woman; evidence that the neighbor had met the victim at a work party; evidence that the neighbor told police repeatedly that he was at a restaurant but none of the many employees who knew him well had seen him there; testimony that the neighbor acted oddly after the murder; and evidence that the neighbor had damage to his car consistent with damage that may have occurred to the car seen leaving the vicinity of the scene.

Id.  Finding that such evidence is "much stronger than in cases where [the Supreme Judicial Court has] held that alternative suspect evidence was properly excluded," Justice Silver wrote that he "would vacate the judgment and remand for a new trial allowing the alternative-suspect evidence to be heard by the jury."  Id. at ¶52, ¶54.

I lean toward the dissent's conclusion.  At a minimum, it seems that the trial judge created a close question on appeal without good cause.  The evidence against Mitchell was compelling (DNA, shoes matching footprints at the crime scene, prior animus toward the victim), making it highly unlikely that the alternative suspect evidence---even if potentially excludable---would have confused the jury.  In addition, Mitchell was on trial for a heinous crime, for which he was eventually sentenced to life imprisonment.  If he knew of another man who insulted the victim and otherwise acted in a suspicious manner, he deserved his chance to present his implausible theory of the case, however strong the state's evidence.

  - Ben Trachtenberg

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