JUSTICE ALITO delivered the opinion of the Court.
This case presents the question whether a criminal defendant's federal constitutional rights are violated by an evidence rule under which the defendant may not introduce proof of third-party guilt if the prosecution has introduced forensic evidence that, if believed, strongly supports a guilty verdict.
On the morning of December 31, 1989, 86-year-old Mary Stewart was beaten, raped, and robbed in her home. She
At the second trial, the prosecution relied heavily on the following forensic evidence:
In addition, the prosecution introduced evidence that petitioner had been seen near Stewart's home within an hour of the time when, according to the prosecution's evidence, the attack took place. Id., at 337-338, 343, 605 S. E. 2d, at 21, 24.
As a major part of his defense, petitioner attempted to undermine the State's forensic evidence by suggesting that it had been contaminated and that certain law enforcement officers had engaged in a plot to frame him. Id., at 339, 605 S. E. 2d, at 22. Petitioner's expert witnesses criticized the
Petitioner also sought to introduce proof that another man, Jimmy McCaw White, had attacked Stewart. 361 S. C., at 340, 605 S. E. 2d, at 22. At a pretrial hearing, petitioner proffered several witnesses who placed White in the victim's neighborhood on the morning of the assault, as well as four other witnesses who testified that White had either acknowledged that petitioner was "`innocent'" or had actually admitted to committing the crimes. Id., at 340-342, 605 S. E. 2d, at 22-23. One witness recounted that when he asked White about the "word . . . on the street" that White was responsible for Stewart's murder, White "put his head down and he raised his head back up and he said, well, you know I like older women." App. 119. According to this witness, White added that "he did what they say he did" and that he had "no regrets about it at all." Id., at 120. Another witness, who had been incarcerated with White, testified that White had admitted to assaulting Stewart, that a police officer had asked the witness to testify falsely against petitioner, and that employees of the prosecutor's office, while soliciting the witness' cooperation, had spoken of manufacturing evidence against petitioner. Id., at 38-50. White testified at the pretrial hearing and denied making the incriminating statements. 361 S. C., at 341-342, 605 S. E. 2d, at 23. He also provided an alibi for the time of the crime, but another witness refuted his alibi. Id., at 342, 605 S. E. 2d, at 23.
The trial court excluded petitioner's third-party guilt evidence citing State v. Gregory, 198 S.C. 98, 16 S.E.2d 532 (1941), which held that such evidence is admissible if it "`raise[s] a reasonable inference or presumption as to [the defendant's] own innocence'" but is not admissible if it
"[S]tate and federal rulemakers have broad latitude under the Constitution to establish rules excluding evidence from criminal trials." United States v. Scheffer, 523 U.S. 303, 308 (1998); see also Crane v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 683, 689-690 (1986); Marshall v. Lonberger, 459 U.S. 422, 438, n. 6 (1983); Chambers v. Mississippi, 410 U.S. 284, 302-303 (1973); Spencer v. Texas, 385 U.S. 554, 564 (1967). This latitude, however, has limits. "Whether rooted directly in the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment or in the Compulsory Process or Confrontation Clauses of the Sixth Amendment, the Constitution guarantees criminal defendants `a meaningful opportunity to present a complete defense.'" Crane, supra, at 690 (quoting California v. Trombetta, 467 U.S. 479, 485 (1984); citations omitted). This right is abridged by evidence rules that "infring[e] upon a weighty interest of the accused" and are "`arbitrary' or `disproportionate to the purposes they are designed to serve.'"
This Court's cases contain several illustrations of "arbitrary" rules, i. e., rules that excluded important defense evidence but that did not serve any legitimate interests. In Washington v. Texas, 388 U.S. 14 (1967), state statutes barred a person who had been charged as a participant in a crime from testifying in defense of another alleged participant unless the witness had been acquitted. As a result, when the defendant in Washington was tried for murder, he was precluded from calling as a witness a person who had been charged and previously convicted of committing the same murder. Holding that the defendant's right to put on a defense had been violated, we noted that the rule embodied in the statutes could not "even be defended on the ground that it rationally sets apart a group of persons who are particularly likely to commit perjury" since the rule allowed an alleged participant to testify if he or she had been acquitted or was called by the prosecution. Id., at 22-23.
A similar constitutional violation occurred in Chambers v. Mississippi, supra. A murder defendant called as a witness a man named McDonald, who had previously confessed to the murder. When McDonald repudiated the confession on the stand, the defendant was denied permission to examine McDonald as an adverse witness based on the State's "`voucher' rule," which barred parties from impeaching their own witnesses. Id., at 294. In addition, because the state hearsay rule did not include an exception for statements against penal interest, the defendant was not permitted to introduce evidence that McDonald had made self-incriminating statements to three other persons. Noting that the State had not even attempted to "defend" or "explain [the] underlying rationale" of the "voucher rule," id., at 297, this Court held that "the exclusion of [the evidence of McDonald's out-of-court statements], coupled with the State's refusal to permit [the defendant] to cross-examine McDonald, denied him a
Another arbitrary rule was held unconstitutional in Crane v. Kentucky, supra. There, the defendant was prevented from attempting to show at trial that his confession was unreliable because of the circumstances under which it was obtained, and neither the State Supreme Court nor the prosecution "advanced any rational justification for the wholesale exclusion of this body of potentially exculpatory evidence." Id., at 691.
In Rock v. Arkansas, supra, this Court held that a rule prohibiting hypnotically refreshed testimony was unconstitutional because "[w]holesale inadmissibility of a defendant's testimony is an arbitrary restriction on the right to testify in the absence of clear evidence by the State repudiating the validity of all post-hypnosis recollections." Id., at 61. By contrast, in Scheffer, supra, we held that a rule excluding all polygraph evidence did not abridge the right to present a defense because the rule "serve[d] several legitimate interests in the criminal trial process," was "neither arbitrary nor disproportionate in promoting these ends," and did not "implicate a sufficiently weighty interest of the defendant." Id., at 309.
While the Constitution thus prohibits the exclusion of defense evidence under rules that serve no legitimate purpose or that are disproportionate to the ends that they are asserted to promote, well-established rules of evidence permit trial judges to exclude evidence if its probative value is outweighed by certain other factors such as unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, or potential to mislead the jury. See, e. g., Fed. Rule Evid. 403; Uniform Rule of Evid. 45 (1953); ALI, Model Code of Evidence Rule 303 (1942); 3 J. Wigmore, Evidence §§ 1863, 1904 (1904). Plainly referring to rules of this type, we have stated that the Constitution permits judges "to exclude evidence that is `repetitive . . ., only marginally relevant' or poses an undue risk of `harassment, prejudice,
A specific application of this principle is found in rules regulating the admission of evidence proffered by criminal defendants to show that someone else committed the crime with which they are charged. See, e. g., 41 C. J. S., Homicide § 216, pp. 56-58 (1991) ("Evidence tending to show the commission by another person of the crime charged may be introduced by accused when it is inconsistent with, and raises a reasonable doubt of, his own guilt; but frequently matters offered in evidence for this purpose are so remote and lack such connection with the crime that they are excluded"); 40A Am. Jur. 2d, Homicide § 286, pp. 136-138 (1999) ("[T]he accused may introduce any legal evidence tending to prove that another person may have committed the crime with which the defendant is charged . . . . [Such evidence] may be excluded where it does not sufficiently connect the other person to the crime, as, for example, where the evidence is speculative or remote, or does not tend to prove or disprove a material fact in issue at the defendant's trial" (footnotes omitted)). Such rules are widely accepted,
In Gay and this case, however, the South Carolina Supreme Court radically changed and extended the rule. In Gay, after recognizing the standard applied in Gregory, the court stated that "[i]n view of the strong evidence of appellant's guilt—especially the forensic evidence— . . . the proffered evidence . . . did not raise `a reasonable inference' as to
Under this rule, the trial judge does not focus on the probative value or the potential adverse effects of admitting the defense evidence of third-party guilt. Instead, the critical inquiry concerns the strength of the prosecution's case: If the prosecution's case is strong enough, the evidence of third-party guilt is excluded even if that evidence, if viewed independently, would have great probative value and even if it would not pose an undue risk of harassment, prejudice, or confusion of the issues.
Furthermore, as applied in this case, the South Carolina Supreme Court's rule seems to call for little, if any, examination of the credibility of the prosecution's witnesses or the reliability of its evidence. Here, for example, the defense strenuously claimed that the prosecution's forensic evidence was so unreliable (due to mishandling and a deliberate plot to frame petitioner) that the evidence should not have even been admitted. The South Carolina Supreme Court responded that these challenges did not entirely "eviscerate" the forensic evidence and that the defense challenges went to the weight and not to the admissibility of that evidence. Id., at 343, n. 8, 605 S. E. 2d, at 24, n. 8. Yet, in evaluating the prosecution's forensic evidence and deeming it to be "strong"—and thereby justifying exclusion of petitioner's third-party guilt evidence—the South Carolina Supreme Court made no mention of the defense challenges to the prosecution's evidence.
The rule applied in this case is no more logical than its converse would be, i. e., a rule barring the prosecution from introducing evidence of a defendant's guilt if the defendant is able to proffer, at a pretrial hearing, evidence that, if believed, strongly supports a verdict of not guilty. In the present case, for example, petitioner proffered evidence that, if believed, squarely proved that White, not petitioner, was the perpetrator. It would make no sense, however, to hold that this proffer precluded the prosecution from introducing its evidence, including the forensic evidence that, if credited, provided strong proof of petitioner's guilt.
For these reasons, we vacate the judgment of the South Carolina Supreme Court and remand the case for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.
It is so ordered.
Elaine Metlin and Ann-Marie Luciano filed a brief of amicus curiae for the Innocence Project, Inc.