Evidence – Hearsay – Alternate Suspect

Evidence – Hearsay – Alternate Suspect

People v. Elmarr

This one comes out of Colorado’s twentieth judicial district. The case involved a defendant that was convicted of first degree murder at the trial level. The prosecution alleged that the defendant, after deliberation, caused the strangulation death of his ex-wife. The defense asserted that two alternate suspects should be considered by the jury.

The alternate suspect defense is known as the (SODDI) ‘Some Other Dude Did It’ defense. Alternate suspect evidence seeks to cast reasonable doubt on the material element of identity. In other words, evidence indicating that someone else committed the crime tends to make the defendant’s identity as the perpetrator less probable and, thus, creates reasonable doubt as to the defendant’s guilt.. If any case implicates facts suggesting that the government is accusing the wrong person, the alternate suspect defense must be explored.

In People v. Elmarr, the Colorado Supreme Court clarified the way in which the alternate suspect defense will be analyzed.  The Court held that the “admissibility of alternate suspect evidence ultimately depends on the strength of the connection between the alternate suspect and the charged crime. To be admissible, alternate suspect evidence must be relevant (under CRE 401) and its probative value must not be sufficiently outweighed by the danger of confusion of the issues or misleading the jury, or by considerations of undue delay (under CRE 403).”

Essentially, to be admissible, alternate suspect evidence must demonstrate a non-speculative connection (nexus) between the alternate suspect and the crime charged.

“Where the evidence concerns other acts by the alternate suspect, a court must look to whether all the similar acts and circumstances, taken together, support a finding that the same person probably was involved in both the other act and the charged crime.

Where the evidence concerns statements by the alternate suspect, a court must determine whether the alternate suspect’s statements meet the requirements of CRE 804(b)(3) or any other applicable hearsay exception. Even assuming the statements are admissible under the rules governing hearsay, the court must still determine whether the statements, along with the other proffered alternate suspect evidence, establish the requisite non-speculative connection tying the alternate suspect to the charged crime.

Even relevant alternate suspect evidence may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by countervailing policy considerations under CRE 403, such as the danger of confusion of the issues or misleading the jury, or by considerations of undue delay.”

Bear in mind, this rather complex fight is about, simply, whether a jury gets to hear about certain parts of the circumstances of the case. Although a win or loss can rest on the court’s ruling on this issue, the evidence still needs to be presented to a jury, and the jury will do with it what they will.

The remarkable facts of this case are as follows (you can’t make this stuff up):

  1. Clifton Denis, a homeless man, was camping near where the victim’s body was found,
  2. Denis was linked to the crime scene,
  3. Denis purportedly made statements to law enforcement (while confined to a mental health institution and under the influence of drugs) confessing to the murder,
  4. Evidence of two other crimes committed by Denis involving acts of strangulation within the same year as the murder (Denis confessed to causing the strangulation death of his roommate earlier that year, and strangling another roommate and girlfriend – he was found not guilty by reason of insanity),
  5. Denis died and was unable to testify.

After considering these facts, the trial court denied the jury access to this information. The court of appeals disagreed and awarded a new trial, the Supreme Court ruled that neither the court of appeals nor the trial court properly analyzed the admissibility of alternate suspect evidence. Accordingly, the Supreme Court created a framework analysis and remanded the matter to the trial court for further findings and orders.

The framework, as it exists now, is as follows:

  1. The evidence must be relevant, and establish a non-speculative connection between the alternate suspect and the crime charged. Mere motive or opportunity is not sufficient – something more must be provided to establish a non-speculative connection.
  2. Admissibility of similar acts evidence (Denis’ prior strangulations) of the alternate suspect is determined on a case-by-case basis looking to whether all the similar acts and circumstances, taken together, support a finding that the same person probably was involved in both the other act and the charged crime.
  3. Admissibility of hearsay evidence remains unchanged but, in the context of the alternate suspect defense, must still satisfy the threshold nexus analysis.
  4. Even relevant alternate suspect 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.

More in-depth analysis of the alternate suspect defense can be found here. Again, law is complex. Give us a call for a fair shake.

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