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Hawai’i Supreme Court Announces Admissibility of Third-Party Culpability Evidence Is Same Relevancy Test That’s Applied for Other Evidence, Superseding Rabellizsa

 

by Douglas Ankney

The Supreme Court of Hawai’i announced that the standard for admission of third-party culpability evidence is the same as the relevancy test that is applies to other types of evidence, superseding State v. Rabellizsa, 903 P.2d 43 (Haw. 1995).

Yoko Kato was arrested on charges of second-degree murder. The complaining witness (identified as “CW”) was a Japanese national. She had received a text message from a woman calling herself Ai Akanishi, asking the CW to meet her for drinks. The message arrived via the LINE application using the CW’s personal LINE identification (“LINE ID”). Even though the CW did not know anyone named Akanishi and hadn’t given her LINE ID to anyone by that name, she agreed to the meeting.

The CW rode her bicycle to the designated location. A man speaking in broken Japanese (“spoken by a nonnative speaker”) directed her where to park her bicycle. While she was parking her bike, the man stabbed her several times. She fled to a nearby business, and the owners called police.

When describing her assailant, the CW told police her attacker could have been a woman because the voice was high for a male. She later told police the woman might have been Kato because Kato had the CW’s LINE ID. Kato’s iPad also revealed a communication with an email address connected to Akanishi.

At trial, the defense called David Miller. After Miller had testified that he and the CW had at one time been in a serious romantic relationship (he wanted to marry her), counsel asked if Miller was aware she had been dating other men while he was dating her. The State’s relevancy objection was sustained. Counsel then asked if Miller had seen the CW with other men, and the State’s relevancy objection was again sustained. Defense counsel then explained at a bench conference that he was attempting to show that Kato did not have a motive to stab the CW, but Miller did.

The State argued, based on Rabellizsa, that there wasn’t sufficient nexus connecting Miller to the crime to allow evidence of his motive to be entered. Ultimately, the court ruled that because there was no evidence placing Miller, a Caucasian, near the scene of the crime, the defense had failed to meet the “sufficient nexus” standard of Rabellizsa, and the motive evidence would not be permitted. The defense reminded the court that the CW had told police her attacker was Caucasian. The court discredited that, choosing to credit instead the State’s witnesses who described the assailant as Asian.

Through other witnesses, Kato presented evidence that three eyewitnesses said it was a man who had stabbed the CW; that Japanese was Kato’s native language, which she spoke perfectly whereas Miller’s ability was rudimentary; that Miller carried a knife; and that Miller had access to Kato’s iPhone and her iPad. Kato was convicted of reckless endangering in the second degree, and she appealed. She argued, inter alia, that the trial court erred in precluding her from adducing evidence that Miller had motive to commit the crime charged. The Intermediate Court of Appeals (“ICA”) affirmed her conviction, and the Hawai’i Supreme Court granted further review.

The Court observed “[i]n Rabellizsa, this court considered as a matter of first impression the admissibility of ‘evidence of a third person’s motive to commit the crime for which the defendant was charged.’” In Rabellizsa, the Hawai’i Supreme Court relied on decisions from other jurisdictions to hold that motive alone was insufficient to establish relevance. Instead, there must be a “nexus between the proffered evidence and the charged crime.” Id. For example, the Rabellizsa decision relied on State v. Denny, 357 N.W.2d 12 (Wis. Ct. App. 1984) (formulating a “legitimate tendency” test requiring a defendant to show motive, opportunity, and “some evidence to directly connect a third person to the crime charged which is not remote in time, place, or circumstances” before the evidence is admissible.) The Rabellizsa Court adopted Denny’s “legitimate tendency” test.

But in the intervening years since Rabellizsa, those decisions from other jurisdictions have been modified or reversed. In general, those jurisdictions now agree that the test for admissibility of third-party culpability evidence is one of relevance as defined by the rules of evidence. Gray v. Commonwealth, 480 S.W.3d 253 (Ky. 2016). Hawai’i’s Rules of Evidence, Rule 401, defines “relevant evidence” as “evidence having any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence.” The “legitimate tendency” test exceeds Rule 401’s threshold requirement that the third-party culpability evidence have “any tendency.” The lack of a direct connection between the third party and the crime charged doesn’t mean third-party culpability evidence is not relevant, the Court explained.

In the instant case, Kato’s other evidence, when combined with evidence of Miller’s motive, would have supported a jury’s conclusion that Miller committed the crime and framed Kato.

Further, even under the “legitimate tendency” test, Kato showed a nexus between Miller and the crime. But the trial court had discredited her evidence, choosing instead to credit the State’s evidence. The trial court’s weighing of this evidence invaded the province of the jury and deprived Kato of a meaningful opportunity to present a complete defense. Holmes v. South Carolina, 547 U.S. 319 (2006).

The Court concluded these errors were not harmless. 

Accordingly, the Court vacated the decisions of the ICA and the trial court and remanded for further proceedings consistent with the Court’s opinion. See: State v. Kato, 465 P.3d 925 (Haw. 2020). 

Related legal case

State v. Kato

 

 

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