May 5, 2006

Supreme Court unanimously backs Cornell Law Professor John Blume's argument in death penalty case

On May 1 the U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous opinion in Holmes v. South Carolina, endorsing the arguments made by John Blume, associate professor at Cornell Law School and director of the Cornell Death Penalty Project, who argued the case before the court Feb. 22.

Accompanying Blume in February were Sheri Johnson, professor and assistant director of the Death Penalty Project, and Trevor Morrison, assistant professor at the school and a former Supreme Court clerk under Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Both helped write one of the briefs in the case and prepare Blume for the oral argument. "But it was really John's show," said Morrison.

Blume spoke on behalf of Bobby Lee Holmes, a South Carolina death row inmate. A South Carolina law was used to prevent Holmes, the defendant in the capital case, from presenting evidence that a third party committed the crime. At issue was whether a lower court's application of that law violated the Constitution's sixth and 14th amendments.

"I am very gratified that the court ruled unanimously in Mr. Holmes' favor," said Blume. "This was a team effort, and I was fortunate to have wonderful assistance from my colleagues. The victory also belongs to trial counsel, appellate counsel and others who fought to preserve Mr. Holmes' rights."

Writing for the court, Associate Justice Samuel Alito held, in part: "A criminal defendant's federal constitutional rights are violated by an evidence rule under which the defendant may not introduce evidence of third-party guilt if the prosecution has introduced forensic evidence that, if believed, strongly supports a guilty verdict."

Even though a third party claimed to have committed the crime for which Holmes was convicted, forensic evidence implicated Holmes. Following South Carolina law on third-party guilt, the trial court found the evidence against Holmes so compelling that naming a third party as the potential criminal in the case would have conflicted with 1941 and 2001 court precedents on third-party guilt issues.

In South Carolina an individual may imply the guilt of a third party during trial. However, he or she may not implicate a particular person unless there is specific evidence linking that person to the crime. Because the three South Carolina courts where Holmes was tried and appealed his case -- county criminal, state appellate and state Supreme Court -- all refused to admit evidence linking the other person to the crime, Holmes' lawyers asserted that the state's third-party guilt rule violated Holmes' due-process rights.

Alito's opinion for the U.S. Supreme Court also stated: "The [South Carolina] rule is 'arbitrary' in the sense that it does not rationally serve the end that ... third-party guilt rules were designed to further. Nor has the State identified any other legitimate end served by the rule. Thus, the rule violates a criminal defendant's right to have 'a meaningful opportunity to present a complete defense.'"

"John won an excellent result for his client," said Morrison. "In his reply brief to the court, he laid out a framework for understanding the case that was extremely persuasive. Justice Alito's opinion for the court tracks that framework quite closely."

Johnson said: "The briefs are important in every case, including this one, and these briefs were excellent. Here, however, John's oral argument was also extraordinarily compelling and adept, and I think it contributed to the unanimous vote."

Blume commented: "We are only halfway home. We firmly believe that Bobby Holmes did not commit this crime, and we will continue to try and prove his innocence."