SAN FRANCISCO — A longstanding rule that precluded defense lawyers from asserting that someone else committed the crime at hand was unanimously struck down by the state Supreme Court on Thursday.
The ruling came in a case involving Rhae Foust who, hoping to avoid being charged with drunk driving, told police that a friend, Henry Loren Hall, boasted of murdering an 85-year-old man 10 months earlier, in December, 1981.
Authorities had thought the victim, Israel Deasonhouse, died of natural causes at his home in Elsinore, in Riverside County. But based on Foust's statements, police reopened the case, the body was exhumed, and an autopsy showed that he had been strangled. Hall and a second man were arrested and convicted.
At his trial, Hall's lawyer wanted to argue that Foust was the culprit.
Foust did know intimate details of the crime. For example, he told police that Deasonhouse was eating cottage cheese or yogurt shortly before the murder.
The trial judge, however, cited a rule created in 1924 by the state Supreme Court that bars defense lawyers from blaming the crime on someone else, unless there is a "substantial probability" that the other person is guilty.
Striking down that rule Thursday, the court, in an opinion by Justice Stanley Mosk, said: "To be admissible, the third party evidence need not show 'substantial proof of a probability' that the third person committed the act. It need only be capable of raising a reasonable doubt of defendant's guilt.
"At the same time, we do not require that any evidence, however remote, must be admitted to show a third party's possible culpability.
" . . . Evidence of mere motive or opportunity to commit the crime in another person, without more, will not suffice to raise a reasonable doubt about a defendant's guilt."
Mosk went onto to point out that, despite the trial judge's decision to preclude evidence that Foust committed the crime, Hall's lawyer did manage to bring out several details that pointed to Foust.
There were shoe prints at Deasonhouse's home that might have been left by Foust. Also, a bone on the left side of Deasonhouse's neck had been broken, suggesting the murderer was left-handed. Hall is right-handed, while Foust is left-handed.
The court concluded, however, that while there may have been some hint that someone else committed the murder, there was more than enough evidence that Hall, who is serving a term of 25 years to life in prison, was guilty.