Alternative Perpetrator Theories and Reverse-Spreigl Evidence

As part of the constitutional right to present a complete defense, Minnesota courts have held that criminal defendants should in certain circumstances be permitted to present evidence suggesting that the crime charged was committed by an alternative perpetrator. State v. Larson, 787 N.W.2d 592, 597 (Minn. 2010). In order to present any evidence of an alternative perpetrator theory, the defendant must lay foundation by introducing evidence that has an inherent tendency to connect the alternative perpetrator with the crime charged. Id. If the defendant is able to meet this foundational prerequisite and the evidence complies with other evidentiary rules, the defendant may be allowed to introduce evidence of motive, specific threats, or other facts that implicate the alternative perpetrator in the crime charged. State v. Atkinson, 774 N.W.2d 584, 589 (Minn. 2009).

Reverse-Spreigl evidence is a subset of alternative perpetrator evidence. Evidence of other crimes, wrongs, or bad acts by an alleged alternative perpetrator introduced by a defendant as part of an alternate theory to create a reasonable doubt as to his or her own guilt is sometimes referred to as reverse-Spreigl evidence. State v. Jones, 678 N.W.2d 1, 16 (Minn. 2004). Reverse-Spreigl evidence may be admitted for the purposes allowed in Rule 404(b) if: (1) there is clear and convincing evidence that the alternative perpetrator participated in the reverse-Spreigl incident; (2) the reverse-Spreigl incident is relevant and material to the defendant’s case; and (3) the probative value of the reverse-Spreigl evidence outweighs the potential for unfair prejudice. Woodruff v. State, 608 N.W.2d 881, 885 (Minn. 2000).

In a recent case decided by the Minnesota Supreme Court, State v. Hokanson, A11-0359, A11-2227 (Minn. October 3, 2012)the appellant sought review of his conviction for first degree murder (during malicious punishment of a child and with a past pattern of child abuse) in the death of his 17-month old stepson. The appellant challenged the trial court’s decision not to admit evidence of other acts of the child’s mother and grandfather to suggest that one of these other parties had caused the child’s death.  The Minnesota Supreme Court found that the various alternative perpetrator evidence proffered by the defense, which included evidence of the mother’s mental illness, involvement with child protection, and a burn incident that could not be linked to abuse, did not meet both the foundational requirements for alternative perpetrator evidence and the specific requirements applicable to reverse-Spreigl evidence. The Court held that the trial judge’s exclusion of the alternative perpetrator evidence, including the reverse-Spreigl evidence, was not an abuse of discretion.