Murder convictions overturned due to 'Brady' violation

By Pat Murphy

The Daily Record Newswire

BOSTON, MA -- Prosecutors' failure to disclose evidence undermining the testimony of a key eyewitness required the reversal of a defendant's capital murder convictions, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in an 8-1 decision.

The state of Louisiana charged the defendant with capital murder in connection with an armed robbery committed by several black males in which five people were shot to death. The defendant was prosecuted by the Orleans Parish District Attorney's office in New Orleans. The office has a well-publicized history of failing to turn over exculpatory evidence to defense attorneys in capital cases.

At trial, a single eyewitness identified the defendant as one of the gunmen involved in the shooting. No other witnesses and no physi?cal evidence implicated the defendant in the crime.

The defendant later learned that the notes of the lead police investigator in the case indicated that the eyewitness was unable to identify any of the perpetrators immediately following the murders. The defendant sought to have his conviction overturned, arguing that the prosecution's failure to disclose the detective's notes violated his due process rights under Brady v. Maryland.

The state argued that the undisclosed statements of the eyewitness were not "material" for purposes of establishing a Brady violation. (See "Supreme Court takes up Brady case for death row inmate," Lawyers USA, Nov. 8, 2011.)

The Court disagreed, explaining that "[w]e have observed that evidence impeaching an eyewitness may not be material if the state's other evidence is strong enough to sustain confidence in the verdict. That is not the case here. [The eyewitness's] testimony was the only evidence linking [the defendant] to the crime. And [the eyewitness's] undisclosed statements directly contradict his testimony. ... [The eyewitness's] undisclosed statements were plainly material."

Chief Justice John G. Roberts wrote the majority opinion. Justice Clarence Thomas filed a dissent.

U.S. Supreme Court. Smith v. Cain, No. 10-8145.

Published: Thu, Jan 12, 2012