Trustworthiness of Statements Against Penal Interest: How Far Should Courts Inquire?

In People v. Thibodeau (Ct. App. 6/14/18) (4-3), the defendant was convicted in 1995 of Kidnapping 1º after an 18-year-old convenience store clerk disappeared. At trial, the evidence provided that the missing clerk rang up the defendant’s brother for a pack of cigarettes just minutes before she disappeared. Eyewitness testimony also provided an account of two men and a women in the parking lot of the store near a “whitish blue van.” Other incriminating testimony offered at trial included self-declared admissions by the defendant to his inmates, including that the clerk was “killed with his shovel and mutilated.” Nineteen years later, the defendant moved to vacate his conviction because of newly discovered evidence, namely third-party admissions of three men in connection with the clerk’s disappearance.

The lower court found the new evidence lacking; it found that the third-party admissions to be inadmissible hearsay. The Appellate Division affirmed, with one dissenting Justice who granted the defendant leave to further appeal. The Court of Appeals considered whether the defendant’s motion was improperly denied by analyzing the newly admitted evidence standard.  A split 4-3 Court held that the motion was properly denied.

In connection with the crime, three men made various statements to different people about the store clerk’s disappearance that, according to the defendant, implicated them in the crime and exonerated him. However, the burden of proof in vacating the judgment was with the defendant.  He had the burden of proving “by a preponderance of the evidence every fact essential to support the motion.” The three men denied making such self-incriminating statements when called to testify at the defendant’s hearing on his motion to vacate. The defendant then sought to admit out-of-statements from the men in which they allegedly admitted involvement in the crime. The witnesses denied making the statements.  The defendant argued that the out-of-court statements were against penal interests and, therefore, were admissible under a hearsay exception, assuming the witnesses would be unavailable at a new trial.

Ultimately, the Court found the lower courts ruled properly to deny the defendant’s motion. If the courts had done otherwise, inadmissible hearsay testimony would have been entered to exculpate the defendant. The Court’s analysis in determining whether to admit statements against penal interests included an extensive and objective inquiry into the trustworthiness of such statements. In fact, the Court relied on the lack of independent evidence linking the three men to the scene of the crime in finding that the defendant’s reliance on these statements was deficient. For example, the Court was not presented proof that all three men even knew each other at the time of the crime. Therefore, the Court concluded that the defendant’s reliance on the newly discovered “evidence” was flawed and comprised of uncorroborated hearsay.

Justice Rivera penned a strong dissent, finding that the defendant, who maintained his innocence for over two decades, deserved the right to a new trial with this new evidence. Justice Rivera emphasized the lack of “true” evidence presented by the People at defendant’s trial: there was no physical, forensic, or motive evidence to support the defendant’s involvement. In fact, the defendant even had an alibi witness, his girlfriend, who testified that he was with her the morning of the crime. The dissent also focused on the fact that multiple, unrelated parties heard the confessions of the three men in relation to the crime. Judge Rivera emphasized that such declarations that can lead to exculpate a defendant are subject to “a more lenient standard.” In contrast to the majority’s focus on the trustworthiness of the statements, the dissent provided that the Court’s belief in whether a statement is true is irrelevant; rather, “[o]nce a proponent establishes the possibility of trustworthiness, it is the function of the jury alone to determine whether the declaration is sufficient to create reasonable doubt of guilt.”

Ultimately, it was up to the Court to determine whether the defendant met his burden of showing the preponderance of the evidence that “new evidence has been discovered … which is of such character as to create a probability of a verdict more favorable to the defendant.” In providing the self-incriminating statements of three men, along with witnesses who corroborated such statements, is it remotely possible that a jury have reasonable doubt of the defendant’s guilt? (AP/LC)

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