EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Other (Wo)Man: Supreme Court Of Connecticut Finds Exclusion Of Evidence Violated Right to Present A Defense

It is well established that "[t]he federal constitution require[s] that criminal defendants be afforded a meaningful opportunity to present a complete defense....The sixth amendment...[guarantees] the right to offer the testimony of witnesses, and to compel their attendance, if necessary, [and] is in plain terms the right to present a defense, the right to present the defendant's version of the facts as well as the prosecution's to the jury so that it may decide where the truth lies....When defense evidence is excluded, such exclusion may give rise to a claim of denial of the right to present a defense....

In its opinion in Holmes v. South Carolina, the United States Supreme Court found that South Carolina courts erred by applying a rule that precluded a defendant from presenting evidence concerning an alternate suspect theory where there is strong evidence of the defendant's guilt, especially where there is strong forensic evidence. The recent opinion of the Supreme Court of Connecticut in State v. Hedge, 2010 WL 2889494 (Conn. 2010), is not all that different.

In Hedge, the Supreme Court of Connecticut found that the jury reasonably could have found the following facts:

In the early morning hours of May 11, 2002, Officers Nick Grasso and Raymond Ryan of the Bridgeport police department were patrolling the area around Marina Village, a public housing project in the city of Bridgeport. At the time, they were assigned to the Mayor's Office of Special Targets (MOST) detail, which was charged with conducting "proactive police work." The area around Marina Village was known to the officers for its heavy drug trafficking and other crime. At approximately 1:30 a.m., Grasso and Ryan observed the defendant driving a tan Toyota Camry heading northbound on Columbia Street. The vehicle was owned by the defendant's girlfriend, Renita Lathrop. There were no other vehicles on the road when the officers observed the defendant. When the defendant came to the intersection of Columbia Street and Johnson Street, he turned right onto Johnson Street, which was the only direction he could turn at that intersection. The officers observed that the defendant had failed to use his turn signal and immediately pulled him over. Grasso approached the driver's side of the defendant's vehicle while Ryan approached the passenger's side. Both officers were carrying flashlights. Grasso asked the defendant for his driver's license, vehicle registration and proof of insurance. The defendant informed the officer that he did not have his license in his possession and proceeded to look in the glove compartment and the center console compartment for the other documents. While the defendant was searching for those documents, Grasso shined his flashlight inside the vehicle and noticed "loose cash" on or around the front passenger seat or center console, as well as a single, small Ziplock bag containing what appeared to be narcotics. Grasso immediately ordered the defendant out of the vehicle and placed him under arrest. After placing the defendant in the back of his police cruiser, Grasso told Ryan about the bag of narcotics that he had seen and asked him to return to the defendant's vehicle to retrieve it and to search for additional contraband. Ryan had not noticed the Ziplock bag when he shined his flashlight inside the automobile even though, in contrast to Grasso, he had an unobstructed view of the center console and the front passenger seat from where he was standing.

Ryan, who recently had completed a course on motor vehicle searches and secret compartments, searched the defendant's vehicle. While examining the front seats, he noticed that the front passenger side rug was pulled out from under the dashboard. When he examined the area more closely, he found a black pouch containing eighty-eight small Ziplock bags of cocaine in a hidden compartment under the dashboard. He then searched the driver's side of the vehicle and discovered another hidden compartment, which held a black pouch containing approximately 100 "slabs" of cocaine and fifteen "folds" of heroin. The total amount of cash that was seized from the vehicle was $59.

The defendant was later charged with and convicted of  possession of opium with intent to sell by a person who is not drug dependent, possession of cocaine with intent to sell by a person who is not drug dependent, possession of narcotics with intent to sell within 1500 feet of a public housing project and failure to appear in the first degree. At trial, the defendnat had tried to present evidence that "Kim Jackson, a convicted drug offender, had driven Lathrop's vehicle within twenty-four hours of the defendant's arrest and, on previous occasions, had left drugs and money in that vehicle." The trial court, however, excluded this evidence because of the significant evidence of the defendant's guilt and the failure of this proffered evidence to do more than raise "mere suspicion" of Jackson's involvement with the subject crime

After he was convicted, the defendant appealed, claiming, inter alia, that this ruling violated his right to present a defense, and the Supreme Court of Connecticut agreed, finding that

the trial court improperly excluded evidence that Jackson, a convicted drug dealer, drove Lathrop's vehicle within twenty-fours of the defendant's arrest. The trial court found that the evidence that the defendant proffered established a possible motive for Jackson to commit the crime but did not establish a direct connection between Jackson and the crime. Although we agree with the trial court that the evidence established motive, we disagree that it failed to demonstrate a sufficiently direct connection between Jackson and the crime. To the contrary, Lathrop's testimony placed Jackson at the scene of the crime-her vehicle-within twenty-four hours of the defendant's arrest and in possession of drugs. The fact that Jackson borrowed Lathrop's vehicle on the same day that the defendant had borrowed it provided Jackson with the opportunity to place the drugs inside the secret compartments. Jackson's prior convictions for the manufacture and sale of narcotics, and his history of leaving drugs and money in the very same vehicle, provide a substantial basis for inferring that he may have done so on the day in question. Moreover, according to Lathrop, the defendant had borrowed her vehicle on only two occasions prior to his arrest, and for a relatively short period of time on the night of his arrest. In contrast, Jackson had used Lathrop's vehicle throughout the entire week preceding the defendant's arrest. Furthermore, the vast majority of the drugs found in the vehicle were secreted, out of view and under the dashboard; consequently, at a minimum, it is plausible that the defendant was unaware that the drugs had been hidden there. Finally, the defendant's sole defense at trial was that the drugs found in Lathrop's vehicle belonged to someone else, and that he was unaware that they were in the vehicle when he was stopped by the police. Thus, the excluded evidence was highly relevant to the defendant's defense and to the central question before the jury, namely, whether a reasonable doubt existed as to the defendant's guilt. We conclude, therefore, that the trial court's exclusion of the third party culpability evidence deprived the defendant of the opportunity to present his version of the facts to the jury and to explain to the jurors who, if not him, committed the offenses with which he was charged.



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