Staruh v. Superintendent — habeas corpus — affirmance — Smith
Two adults lived in the house where a three year-old died from blunt-force trauma: the victim’s mother and grandmother. The mother was the one charged with murder. On the eve of trial, after repeatedly claiming for over two years she had nothing to do with the injuries, the grandmother reportedly confessed in interviews with a defense investigator.
When the grandmother refused to repeat the confessions in court, the defense sought to tell the jury what the grandmother had said, offering it as a statement against penal interest. The court refused the request on hearsay grounds, and, knowing nothing about the grandmother’s confessions, the jury convicted the mother of murder.
In the habeas corpus appeal now before the Third Circuit, the mother argued that the court’s refusal to admit the grandmother’s confessions violated the mother’s due process right to present her defense. Today, without oral argument, the Third Circuit rejected the claim, affirming the district court’s ruling and denying habeas relief.
The court did not appear to dispute the mother’s contention that the confessions “were made before and during trial; were made on more than one occasion to a court-appointed investigator; were never repudiated; were very detailed; and were not the result of threats or inducements.” Yet it found that the confessions had “no indicia of credibility.” It explained:
Lois [the grandmother], in making the statements, was attempting to have her cake and eat it too.11 She was hoping to prevent her daughter from being convicted of murder by confessing to the crime, while at the same time avoiding criminal liability herself. Her last-minute change of heart, after she had both pleaded guilty to the lesser offense of endangering a child and disavowed any responsibility for Jordan’s death for two and a half years, further supports this view. This appears to be a “justice-subverting ploy” that provides the justification for requiring indicia of truthfulness.
In the footnote, the court noted that the defendant “appears to have been unable to obtain an affidavit from Lois reaffirming her confession . . . casting further doubt on its truthfulness.”
I question the court’s reasoning. Maybe the grandmom was lying to protect the mom. It’s possible. But it’s also possible that grandmom was the real murderer, her repeated and detailed and never-repudiated confession was the truth, and her refusal to affirm it was choosing her own freedom over the mom’s. The court’s certainty about which possibility is the truth, seemingly arrived at with no subsequent evidence or fact-finding about grandmom’s actual motivations, seems unwarranted. That seems like a choice for juries allowed to hear all the facts, not appellate courts.
Perhaps the panel meant only to say that relief was foreclosed by 2254(d)(1)’s limitation on relief, not that the claim failed as a de novo matter, but that’s not how I read the opinion.
In the opinion’s most dangerous passage, the court stated in a footnote that the grandmother’s unwillingness to testify “is extremely probative of the truth of her statements.” Read broadly, this language is nothing less than a repudiation of the penal-interest hearsay exception. The whole reason defendants like the mother seek to get in hearsay statements against penal interest is that the alternate perpetrator isn’t willing to repeat the confession in court. If the hearsay is never reliable enough when the declarant won’t testify at trial, then the penal-interest rule is an umbrella you can use only when it’s not raining. I hope that the court clarifies this critical point on rehearing or in a future case.
Joining Smith were Hardiman and Nygaard. The case was decided without oral argument.
UPDATES: I posted some further thoughts on this case here.