Relevancy: Guilt of Another

Editor’s note: Jessie has prepared a series of posts about the law of relevancy. They’ll run as an intermittent series over the next several weeks.

In this and upcoming posts, I will explore several relevancy issues that arise with some frequency. Perhaps the most litigated relevancy issue in North Carolina criminal cases is the admissibility of evidence regarding guilt of another. The law is clear that to be relevant, evidence of the guilt of another must: (1) point directly to the guilt of another party and (2) be inconsistent with the defendant’s guilt. By contrast, evidence that creates only an inference or conjecture as to another’s guilt is irrelevant.

There are a fair number of cases on this issue, and they come out both ways. Cases holding that guilt of another evidence is inadmissible under the standard set out above include: State v. Williams, 355 N.C. 501 (2002) (evidence attempting to implicate others in murders); State v. May, 354 N.C. 172 (2001) (evidence showing that another person had an argument with the victim days before the murder, was committed because he was hearing voices telling him to kill, told his doctor that he had hallucinations telling him to kill, and had a history of violent conduct; even if the evidence showed that the other person committed the crime, it was not inconsistent with the defendant’s guilt where the evidence put both the defendant and that person at the scene); State v. Hamilton, 351 N.C. 14 (1999) (evidence of a prior knife threat by another; no unusual facts surrounding the threat were present in the murder at issue; evidence did not point directly to the other person’s guilt); State v. Hester, 343 N.C. 266 (1996) (evidence that merely aroused suspicion that another might have had a motive to murder the victim); State v. McNeill, 326 N.C. 712 (1990) (even if another person had possession of an item similar to one owned by the murder victim, such possession did not put him at the scene and was not inconsistent with the defendant’s guilt); State v. Loftis, 185 N.C. App. 190 (2007) (evidence of methamphetamine use someone who resided near the shed in which methamphetamine was found and of the resident’s prior probation violation was not relevant in the defendant’s trial for trafficking in methamphetamine; the evidence was not inconsistent with the defendant’s guilt; because the probation violation had not been adjudicated, it was not conclusive); State v. Wiley, 182 N.C. App. 437 (2007) (evidence of another’s guilt was irrelevant where that person was an accomplice and the defendant would be guilty regardless of whether he or the other person inflicted the injury at issue); State v. Ryals, 179 N.C. App. 733 (2006) (a witness’s answer to question about submitting to a DNA test in relation to a hat was irrelevant where there was conflicting testimony as to whether the perpetrator wore a hat); State v. Couser, 163 N.C. App. 727 (2004) (evidence that the victim’s father was convicted of sexually assaulting the victim’s sister 17 years before the sexual assault at issue was irrelevant; the fact that the victim’s father previously was convicted of sexual assault in a completely different case was not inconsistent with the defendant’s guilt); and State v. Floyd, 143 N.C. App. 128 (2001) (testimony that the defendant’s girlfriend’s sons were hostile to the victim, and that they were not in school on the day of the murder did no more than arouse suspicion and was not inconsistent with the defendant’s guilt).

Cases holding that the trial court erred by refusing to admit guilt of another evidence include: State v. Snead, 327 N.C. 266 (1990) (excluded evidence tended to show that another identified person committed a robbery and killed the victim; the evidence showed that only one person was involved in the crime); State v. Israel, 353 N.C. 211 (2000) (new trial; evidence that another had the opportunity to kill the victim and a history of violent, recent dealings with the victim cast doubt upon the defendant’s guilt and implicated that person beyond conjecture or mere implication); State v. McElrath, 322 N.C. 1 (1988) (evidence of a larceny scheme in which the murder victim and his companions appeared to be involved was relevant where the defense alleged that the victim was killed by one of the companions after a falling out); and State v. Cotton, 318 N.C. 663 (1987) (evidence that within a short time of the burglary and sexual assault at issue, three homes in close proximity were broken into, the female occupants were sexually assaulted, and that someone other than the defendant committed one of the other break-ins).

Finally, it is important to note that the United States Supreme Court has held that there are constitutional limitations on rules that exclude evidence of guilt of another. In Holmes v. South Carolina, 547 U.S. 319 (2006), the Court held that a defendant’s federal constitutional right to present a defense was violated by a state evidence rule providing that a defendant may not introduce evidence of guilt of another if the prosecution has introduced strong forensic evidence of guilt. The Court held that the state rule was arbitrary, reasoning that by evaluating the strength of only one party’s evidence, no logical conclusion can be reached regarding the strength of contrary evidence offered by the other side to rebut or cast doubt. Two North Carolina cases have distinguished Holmes and held that North Carolina’s rule regarding guilt of another is not arbitrary. State v. Loftis, 185 N.C. App. 190 (2007); State v. Wright, 182 N.C. App. 767 (2007) (unpublished).

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