Criminal Defense News: Supreme Court Reverses Murder Conviction

David Lindsey, Attorney at Law

By David Lindsey Attorney of David Lindsey, Attorney at Law posted in Criminal Defense on Wednesday, February 29, 2012.

In an 8-1 ruling favorable to criminal defense, the Supreme Court has reversed a New Orleans murder conviction based on so-called “Brady Violations” by the prosecutors in the case. Chief Justice Roberts delivered the opinion, in which all the Justices except Justice Thomas joined him.

Juan Smith was convicted on five counts of first-degree murder, based on the testimony of a single eyewitness. During post-conviction relief proceedings, the defendant obtained police files in which the eyewitness contradicted that testimony. Smith argued that disclosure of these facts after the trial constituted a “Brady Violation” on the part of the prosecutors.

The decision refers to the landmark 1963 Brady v. Maryland case, in which the Supreme Court determined that withholding evidence from a defendant constitutes a violation of the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment. The court held that withholding “exculpatory evidence” (evidence which might clear a defendant) violates due process “where the evidence is material either to guilt or to punishment.” “Brady evidence” includes statements of witnesses or physical evidence that contradicts the prosecution’s witnesses.

Justice Thomas, the lone dissenting opinion on the court, held that the defendant had not shown a reasonable probability that the jury would have reached a different conclusion if it had been made aware of the undisclosed statements.

The New Orleans district attorney’s office has an unfortunate history of such violations of due process, obtaining at least a dozen convictions that were later ruled to have been tainted by Brady violations.

In the 5-4 decision, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the dissenting opinion:

“The conceded, long-concealed prosecutorial transgressions were neither isolated nor atypical.

From the top down, the evidence showed, members of the District Attorney’s Office, including the District Attorney himself, misperceived Brady’s compass and therefore inadequately attended to their disclosure obligations. Throughout the pretrial and trial proceedings against Thompson, the team of four engaged in prosecuting him for armed robbery and murder hid from the defense and the court exculpatory information Thompson requested and had a constitutional right to receive. The prosecutors did so despite multiple opportunities, spanning nearly two decades, to set the record straight. Based on the prosecutors’ conduct relating to Thompson’s trials, a fact trier could reasonably conclude that inattention to Brady was standard operating procedure at the District Attorney’s Office.

What happened here…was no momentary oversight, no single incident of a lone officer’s misconduct. Instead, the evidence demonstrated that misperception and disregard of Brady’s disclosure requirements were pervasive in Orleans Parish. That evidence…established persistent, deliberately indifferent conduct for which the District Attorney’s Office bears responsibility.”

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