Alito’s First Death Decision

Alitocollege.jpgSam Alito’s first SCOTUS opinion arrived yesterday and – if you see the world through Cass colored glasses – it’s a liberal one: the defendant won. The issue in Holmes v. South Carolina was whether:

a criminal defendant’s federal constitutional rights are violated by an evidence rule under which the defendant may not introduce proof of third-party guilt if the prosecution has introduced forensic evidence that, if believed, strongly supports a guilty verdict.

The trial court excluded evidence suggesting that a third party had confessed to killing 86 year old Mary Stewart. Why? On the grounds that the evidence against the defendant was so powerful that any evidence implicating the third party could not raise a reasonable inference that the defendant was innocent. To put it another way, the case against Holmes was so good that the state was allowed to exclude evidence that another guy did it. No need to bother the jury with messy details. The South Carolina Supremes thought this was a fine idea as well.

This didn’t look like a hard case to me and the 9-0 vote thankfully confirmed that feeling. If a defendant possesses reasonably relevant evidence on the issue of guilt, we generally let the jury hear it. When, as here, a judge keeps this information from the jury, he or she effectively decides the outcome of a case. In rejecting this policy as unconstitutional, Justices Alito and Roberts proved that whatever their ultimate ideological place on the Court, they are not completely off the deep edge.

More interesting to me, though, is what was missing from the decision. Alito did not note that this was a death penalty case. His opinion stated that Holmes received a death sentence after his first trial, and that this trial and sentence were reversed by a state court. But nowhere in the opinion did he say that this new appeal was also from a death sentence. Why is that? Perhaps it was an oversight. Or maybe Alito thought the underlying sentence was an unnecessary fact. If so, why did Alito note Holmes’ capital sentence after his first trial? Perhaps he didn’t want to highlight this as a death case. He might have felt uncomfortable reversing a death sentence in a heinous killing. Or maybe he didn’t want the case framed as a “death decision” – with all the attendant baggage – and instead cast it as a plain old evidence ruling.

This is a small detail to be sure, but Alito surely knew his first opinion would go under a microscope. The odds are that this omission was not strategic. But if it was, I certainly hope that it does not portend a broader willingness to omit uncomfortable facts.

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4 Responses

  1. anonymous says:

    Definitely one of the more irrelevant posts I’ve read in a while. I am dumber for having read it. Care to explain, or even to build the foundation for making the case, that this factoid was “uncomfortable” and why?

  2. default says:

    I’m with anonymous. Who cares that Alito didn’t mention that he was reversing a death sentence? I’d be happy to see opinions like these (habeas opinions especially) contain no facts at all. What difference should the heinous nature of the crime make to whether S.C.’s laws of evidence are constitutional?

  3. arthur says:

    One reason to omit mention of a death penalty is to make it clear that the precedent is not limited to death penalty cases. Sometimes, prosecutors avoid application of death penalty penalty precedent in a non-capital case on the argument that “death is different.” Alito would have seen both sides of these arguments at the Circuit Court.

  4. …and to further speculate (I’m not an SC lawyer), in the first case, the post-conviction review (which I believe is standard in SC unless waived and is what led to the second trial)came only after the affirmation of the sentence by the SC Supreme Court and the denial of cert. by the US Supreme Court. In other words, he got the post-conviction review because it was a death penalty case. Following the second trial, the Court granted cert. on an evidentiary issue that was not related to the sentence imposed so the imposition of the death penalty was not relavant to the timeline laid out.

    ….or maybe it’s a coded message to his Religous Right supporters, once again thanking them for their efforts and re-iterating his promise to do away with co-education.