In State v. Andre Luis Franklin, five State Supreme Court justices reversed a defendant’s convictions after concluding the trial court erred in excluding evidence to further the defendant’s “other suspect” defense.  The defendant, Franklin, was in pseudo-relationships with two different women, Hibbler and Fuerte, and the women had a history of jealousy with one another.  Soon after Franklin loaned some money to Fuerte, Fuerte began receiving emails from an unknown email address threatening to post compromising pictures of her online.  These emails were purportedly from Franklin.

After Fuerte contacted authorities to report these cyber threats, the State charged Franklin with cyberstalking.  Before trial, Franklin intended to admit evidence that Hibbler, Franklin’s live-in girlfriend, was the one who was posting these messages and sending these threatening emails to Fuerte.  Franklin was prepared to offer evidence that Hibbler’s personal laptop was the only computer in their home, and that she had previously sent threatening messages to Fuerte over telephone, email, and text message relating to Fuerte’s relationship with Franklin.  Moreover, she had accessed Franklin’s email in the past. The State moved to exclude Franklin’s other-suspect evidence, and the trial court granted the State’s motion to exclude this other-suspect evidence, stating that Franklin must satisfy a “high” bar to admit this other-suspect evidence, and the trial court weighed the strength of the State’s evidence against Franklin in granting the State’s motion to exclude.  The jury found Franklin guilty.

Division One affirmed the trial court.  The Washington Supreme Court accepted review of this evidentiary issue—whether the trial court erred in granting the State’s motion to exclude this other-suspect evidence.

The Supreme Court reversed, and in an opinion by Justice Gordon-McCloud, a five-member majority held that the trial court applied the wrong standard in determining whether to exclude this other-suspect evidence.  Citing Holmes v. South Carolina, 547 U.S. 319 (2006), our Supreme Court stated that the trial court first erred in considering the strength of the State’s case against Franklin in deciding whether to exclude Franklin’s other suspect evidence.  It reiterated that Washington courts have historically determined that if there was an adequate nexus between the alleged other suspect and the crime, then the evidence should be admitted.  Here, the majority cited (1) Hibbler’s motive (her jealousy over Fuerte’s relationship with Franklin), (2) her opportunity to commit the crime (her ability to access Franklin’s email on her laptop), and (3) her history of committing this type of act (Hibbler had previously accessed Franklin’s email; and she had previously sent threatening messages and made threatening calls to Fuerte).  Accordingly, given Hibbler’s motive, opportunity, and history, an adequate nexus existed between Hibbler and the cyberstalking-related crimes here; therefore, the trial court erred in excluding this evidence.

Writing for a four-member dissent, Justice Owens stated that the majority misinterpreted prior case law and applied the wrong standard to determine the admissibility of the evidence.  The dissent also asserted that the majority altered the standard of review in reviewing the trial court’s evidentiary decision.  The dissent opined that this case involved a close call on an evidentiary matter, and thus, Franklin could not demonstrate that the trial court abused its discretion in ruling to exclude it.  The dissent noted that Hibbler had not sent threatening emails in two to three years, and Franklin failed to show that Hibbler knew of, or was connected to, the email address that sent the threatening messages to Fuerte.  Moreover, Hibbler’s mere access to a computer to send emails also did not create a sufficient nexus to the crime.

Had the majority based its opinion on whether the trial court abused its discretion, the standard that typically applies to evidentiary rulings, it seems unlikely that the majority would have arrived at this conclusion.  Division One described the trial court’s decision to exclude this other-suspect evidence as a “close call.”  Generally, when reviewing courts see a close call, they defer to the trial court’s discretion absent manifest unreasonableness or untenable grounds or reasons.