Supremes Give Death Row Inmate Another Chance

Supreme Court orders new trial for South Carolina death row inmate, ruling state courts erred by excluding evidence that another man may have committed the crime

In a unanimous opinion authored by most-junior Justice Samuel Alito, the U.S. Supreme Court on May 2 ordered a new trial for a South Carolina death row inmate, ruling that state courts erred by excluding evidence that another man may have committed the crime. Bobbie Lee Holmes was sentenced to death for the rape, robbery, and murder of 86-year-old Mary Stewart in her home. Although the state argued that it had significant forensic evidence that Holmes was the murderer, Holmes sought to introduce evidence that another man had committed the crime. The trial court excluded the evidence, however, by applying a rule of criminal procedure that, in essence, gave deference to the weight of the forensic evidence. In Alito's 11-page ruling, the court scoffed at the state court's application of the rule: "Under this rule, the trial judge does not focus on the probative value or the potential adverse effects of admitting the defendant's evidence of third-party guilt," Alito wrote. "As applied … the rule seems to call for little, if any, examination of the credibility of the prosecution witnesses or the reliability of the evidence."

In other court news, U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth Hoyt on April 28 overturned the capital murder conviction of Carl Wayne Buntion, who was convicted and sentenced to death in Harris Co. for the 1991 murder of motorcycle cop James Irby. Buntion shot Irby with a .357-caliber Magnum after being pulled over for a minor traffic violation; he does not deny that he killed Irby but argues that he did so in self-defense. Last week, Hoyt ruled that Harris Co. trial Judge Bill Harmon violated Buntion's right to a fair trial by bullying his lawyers, holding unlawful, private meetings with prosecutors, and making remarks in open court regarding Buntion's guilt – including that he was "doing God's work" by seeing that Buntion would be executed, reports the Houston Chronicle. "Judge Harmon decided that Buntion was guilty and should die," before ever hearing any evidence, Hoyt wrote.

The Texas Attorney General's Office has until the end of the month to appeal the ruling to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

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