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Pennsylvania Supreme Court Clarifies Standard for Admission of Evidence of Third Party Guilt

Officer Jeffrey Ference was part of a team that executed a warrant for the arrest of Larry Thompson at the home of Eric Yale’s mother in March of 2017. While searching the residence for Thompson, Ference entered Yale’s bedroom where he found Yale and observed soda bottles containing methamphetamine and ingredients commonly used to produce methamphetamine in what is known as the “one-pot” method. Ference also found Thompson hiding in the closet of the bedroom.

The Commonwealth alleged Thompson and Yale were liable under both principal and accomplice theories of liability. The men were not tried together, and at Yale’s jury trial, he sought to prove that Thompson was solely responsible for the contraband found in Yale’s bedroom. Yale sought to introduce evidence of Thompson’s previous arrests for methamphetamine-related offenses, including an October 2016 arrest and a November 2015 guilty plea. Both incidents involved Thompson’s use of the “one-pot” method.

Relying on Commonwealth v. Rini, 427 A.2d 1385 (Pa. Super. 1981), and Commonwealth v. Palagonia, 868 A.2d 1212 (Pa. Super. 2005), the trial court prohibited Yale from introducing this third person guilt evidence. The jury found Yale guilty of numerous offenses related to the drugs and paraphernalia found in his room, and he was ultimately sentenced to an aggregate term of 60 to 144 months. In his appeal to the Superior Court, Yale argued, inter alia, that the trial court improperly precluded the evidence of Thompson’s previous methamphetamine-related offenses. The Superior Court, citing Rini, Palagonia, and Commonwealth v. Norcero, 582 A.2d 376 (Pa. Superior 1990), affirmed the trial court’s evidentiary ruling. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted Yale’s petition for further review.

The Court observed “[t]he United States Supreme Court has long recognized that a defendant has the right to present evidence and that in defense, evidence of a third person’s guilt is relevant.” Chambers v. Mississippi, 410 U.S. 284 (1973). The Pennsylvania Supreme Court “has also historically recognized a defendant’s right to present evidence that someone else committed the crime of which he is accused. Almost a century ago, [the Court] held that an accused ‘should be allowed to prove a fact which would logically produce a doubt of guilt in the mind of the jury.’” Commonwealth v. Loomis, 113 A.2d 428 (Pa. 2021). The Court reiterated in Commonwealth v. Ward, 605 A.2d 796 (Pa. 1992), that a defendant has a fundamental right to present evidence of a third person’s motive provided the evidence is relevant and not subject to exclusion under established evidentiary rules. And in Commonwealth v. Eubanks, 512 A.2d 619 (Pa. 1986), the Court held that the exclusion of victim’s bad acts was prejudicial error because the evidence made the accused’s version more probable than it would be without the evidence.

In the instant case, the lower courts rejected Yale’s evidence of a third person’s crimes and bad acts, which he sought to introduce to cast doubt on his own guilt. The lower courts applied the heightened similarity standard that is applied when the Commonwealth seeks to use evidence of a defendant’s prior crimes and bad acts to establish guilt of a current charged offense as is found in Pennsylvania’s Rules of Evidence (“P.R.E.”), Rule 404(b). It was Rule 404(b) that underpinned the rulings in Rini, Nocero, and Palagonia that evidence of third-party guilt is inadmissible unless it bears “a highly detailed similarity to the crime with which the defendant is charged” and “the nature of the [prior] crimes is so distinctive or unusual as to be like a signature or the handiwork of the same individual.” Palagonia.

The Court noted that Rule 404(b) codifies Pennsylvania’s common law prohibition on the use of propensity evidence. The Commonwealth cannot use evidence of a defendant’s past crime as evidence to prove he committed the current charged offense unless that evidence meets the stringent guidelines discussed above because such evidence tends to negate a defendant’s presumption of innocence. Shaffner v. Commonwealth, 72 Pa. 60 (1872).

But Yale was not seeking to prove that Thompson committed the charged offenses. Yale was merely seeking to use the evidence to cast doubt on his own guilt. There wasn’t any danger that Thompson would be prejudiced by the evidence because Thompson was not on trial, the Court explained.

The Court clarified the correct standard for determining admission of evidence of third person guilt. “In the case of third person guilt evidence, the relevant inquiries into admissibility are: Does the third person guilt evidence have a tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the issue, e.g., the defendant’s culpability, more or less probable than it would be without the evidence[?] Pa. R.E. 401. If so, is the probative value of the third person guilt evidence outweighed by any danger of ‘confusing the issues, misleading the jury, undue delay, wasting time, or needlessly presenting cumulative evidence[?]’” Pa.R.E. 403.

Because the trial court based its evidentiary ruling on the improper standard set forth in Rini, Nocero, and Palagonia, the Court concluded the case must be remanded to the trial court for consideration of the evidence in a manner consistent with the Court’s opinion.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the decision of the Superior Court with instructions to remand to the circuit court. See: Commonwealth v. Yale, 249 A.3d 1001 (Pa. 2021). 

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