Evidence of a Third Party's Guilt of the Crime that the Accused is Charged with: The Constitutionalization of the SODDI (Some Other Dude Did It) Defense 2.0
40 Pages Posted: 3 Dec 2014
Date Written: December 1, 2014
Defense counsel have employed a version of the SODDI defense for decades. The late Johnny Cochran successfully employed the defense in the O.J. Simpson prosecution, and the legendary fictional defense attorney Perry Mason used the defense in all his cases.
However, in most jurisdictions there are significant limitations on the availability of the defense. In an 1891 decision, the United States Supreme Court announced that evidence of a third party’s misconduct is admissible only if it has a “legitimate tendency” to establish the accused’s innocence. Today most jurisdictions follow a version of the “direct link” test. Under this test, standing alone evidence of a third party’s motive or opportunity to commit the charged offense is inadmissible unless it is accompanied by substantial evidence tying the third party to the commission of the charged crime. Moreover, the evidence that the accused proffers to support the defense must satisfy both the hearsay and character evidence rules. If the defense offers out-of-court statements describing the third party’s conduct, the statements must fall within an exemption from or exception to the hearsay rule. If the defense attempts to introduce evidence of the third party’s perpetration of offenses similar to the charged crime, the defense must demonstrate that the evidence is admissible on a noncharacter theory under Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b)(2).
However, a new version of the SODDI defense has emerged – SODDI 2.0. When the defense relies on this theory, the accused makes a more limited contention. The defense does not contend that reasonable doubt exists because there is admissible evidence of the third party’s guilt. Rather, the defense argues that there is reasonable doubt because the police neglected to investigate the potential guilt of a third party who was a plausible person of interest in the case. Two 2014 decisions, one from the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and another from an intermediate Utah court, approved this version of the defense. Even more importantly, both courts ruled that the trial judge violated the accused’s constitutional right to present a defense by curtailing the accused’s efforts to develop the defense at trial.
The advent of this new version of the defense is both significant and controversial. The development is significant because the defense can often invoke this version of the defense when the restrictions on the traditional SODDI defense preclude the accused from relying on the traditional defense. As the two 2014 decisions point out, when the defense invokes the 2.0 version of the defense, the hearsay rule does not bar testimony about reports to the police about the third party’s misconduct. Under the 2.0 version of the defense, those reports are admissible as nonhearsay to show the reports’ effect on the state of mind of the police officers: putting them on notice of facts that should have motivated them to investigate the third party. Similarly, when the defense relies on the 2.0 version of the defense, the prosecution cannot invoke the character evidence prohibition to bar testimony that the third party has committed offenses similar to the charged crime. The prohibition applies only when the ultimate inference of the proponent’s chain of reasoning is that the person engaged in conduct consistent with his or her character trait. In this setting, the prohibition is inapplicable because the ultimate inference is the state of mind of the investigating officers.
Since the restrictions on the new version of the SODDI defense are much laxer than those on the traditional defense, the advent of this defense is also controversial. Are the inferences from the 2.0 version of the defense so speculative that as a matter of law, the defense is incapable of generating reasonable doubt? Moreover, is it wrong-minded to recognize a version of the defense with such minimal requirements when the prevailing view is that traditional version is subject to much more rigorous requirements?
This article addresses those questions and concludes that it is legitimate to recognize the SODDI defense 2.0. In the past few decades, there has been a growing realization of the incidence of wrongful convictions. In the late Johnny Cochran’s words, some of those convictions were a product of a “rush to judgment” by the police. The recognition of the SODDI defense 2.0 will provide a significant disincentive to such premature judgments by police investigators.
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