In State v. Ortuno-Perez, the WA Court of Appeals held that a murder defendant was wrongfully prohibited from introducing evidence that another person, who was armed at the murder scene, actually committed the murder.
In the early morning hours of October 12, 2013, Jesus Castro was shot in the head while standing outside of a house in Renton. He died several days later.
The single shot was fired at close range from a .22 caliber firearm. At the time the shot was fired, anywhere between 5 to 12 people were standing in close proximity to Castro. In that group were 2 individuals particularly pertinent here, the defendant Santiago Ortuno-Perez and Austin Agnish—each of whom was armed with a handgun at the time.
On the same day that Castro was shot, Ortuno-Perez was identified as a suspect and subsequently arrested outside of a house in Kent. In the days that followed, Ortuno-Perez was identified as the shooter by several witnesses who were present at the scene, including Agnish. Ortuno-Perez was subsequently charged with one count of murder in the first degree, committed while armed with a firearm.
Crucial to his defense at trial, Ortuno-Perez sought to introduce evidence that another person, not him, killed Castro. In particular, his counsel sought to identify Austin Agnish as the shooter, to cross-examine the State’s witnesses for potential bias in their testimony, and to present additional evidence indicating that a person other than Ortuno-Perez was the shooter.
However, the trial court denied Ortuno-Perez’s request because Ortuno-Perez had not demonstrated that Agnish had taken steps to commit the crime.
Four days later, Ortuno-Perez’s counsel filed a detailed offer of proof regarding the “other suspect” evidence that the defense would have introduced but for the trial court’s adverse ruling. Again, the trial court excluded the “other suspect” defense.
On the 10th day of testimony, Ortuno-Perez moved for a mistrial, arguing that his right to present a defense had been denied by the trial court’s “other suspect” rulings. The judge denied the motion for mistrial.
The jury convicted Ortuno-Perez of murder in the second degree, committed while armed with a firearm. He was sentenced to 280 months of confinement. Ortuno-Perez appealed.
Ultimately, the WA Court of Appeals reversed Ortuno-Perez’s conviction and ordered a new trial.
“OTHER SUSPECT” EVIDENCE.
The court reasoned that Washington’s “other suspect” evidence rule—applicable to proffered evidence that a specific person other than the defendant committed the charged crime—has developed from a broad common law rule to a specific and focused application of well established principles of materiality and probative value. Furthermore, the court reasoned that State v. Franklin holds that such evidence should be admitted if there is an adequate nexus between the alleged other suspect and the crime. Thus, the threshold analysis for “other suspect” evidence involves a straightforward, but focused, relevance inquiry, reviewing the evidence’s materiality and probative value for whether the evidence has a logical connection to the crime.
THE SIXTH AMENDMENT.
The Court further reasoned that the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution and article I, section 22 of the Washington Constitution guarantee a criminal defendant a meaningful opportunity to present a defense. This right, however, is not absolute. It may, in appropriate cases, bow to accommodate other legitimate interests in the criminal trial process, including the exclusion of evidence considered irrelevant or otherwise inadmissible. As with all evidence, the proponent bears the burden of establishing the admissibility of “other suspect” evidence.
Because the premise underlying the introduction of “other suspect” evidence is to show that someone other than the defendant committed the charged crime, the standard for admission is whether the proffered evidence tends to indicate a reasonable doubt as to the defendant’s guilt. Evidence is relevant when it is both material—the fact to be proved is of consequence in the context of the other facts and the applicable substantive law — and probative — the evidence has a tendency to prove or disprove a fact.
SUPPRESSING “OTHER SUSPECT” EVIDENCE VIOLATED ORTUNO-PEREZ’S RIGHTS UNDER THE SIXTH AMENDMENT.
Here, the Court of Appeals agreed that the “other suspect” evidence that Ortuno-Perez proffered actually supported a reasonable doubt as to his guilt. Prior to trial, defense counsel sought permission to present evidence to the jury that Agnish, not Ortuno-Perez, killed Castro. In his briefing, Ortuno-Perez’s counsel indicated that it planned to present evidence that Agnish (1) was using prescription drugs at the time that Castro was shot, potentially altering his perception of the shooting and his memory thereof, (2) was armed with a handgun and in close proximity to Castro at the time of the shooting, (3) lied about having access to guns other than the one he admitted carrying at the time of the shooting, and (4) was a member of a gang and had expressed a belief that Castro belonged to a rival gang.
However, the Court of Appeals reasoned that the trial court abused its discretion by improperly excluding the proffered evidence. It said the evidence proffered by Ortuno-Perez relating to Agnish’s potential culpability was of a type that tended to logically connect Agnish to Castro’s murder:
“If credited by the jury, it would establish Agnish’s motive (a gang clash), his opportunity (he was present at the murder scene and in close proximity to Castro at the instant of the shooting), and his means (he was armed with a handgun). Thus, the evidence proffered was plainly relevant to the question of the identity of Castro’s murderer and was of a type that, if credited by the jury, would support a reasonable doubt as to Ortuno-Perez’s guilt.”
The Court of Appeals said that as a result of the trial court’s erroneous rulings , Ortuno-Perez was unfairly prejudiced in two major respects: (1) his ability to confront the witnesses against him was compromised by the rulings preventing him from exploring the potential biases of witnesses who may have been covering for Agnish out of either affinity or fear; and (2) his ability to argue in closing argument that logical inferences from the evidence actually admitted during trial supported a reasonable doubt as to his guilt was compromised by rulings precluding him from suggesting to the jury that anyone other than Ortuno-Perez himself had shot Castro.
The trial court’s erroneous rulings were not harmless. The “other suspect” evidence which the trial judge excluded could have caused a reasonable juror to doubt whether Ortuno-Perez was guilty as charged. Consequently, the Court of Appeals reversed the conviction and remanded for a new trial.
My opinion? Good decision. Under the Sixth Amendment, allowing attorneys to argue inferences from the evidence is a rudimentary aspect of this right. Defense Counsel must be afforded the utmost freedom in the argument of the case and some latitude in the discussion of their causes before the jury.