Sunday, March 13, 2016

A Very Brady Victory

Sometimes the big SCOTUS wins are the quiet ones. Like last Monday's summary reversal---with no briefing on the merits or oral argument---of a Louisiana Supreme Court ruling denying postconviction relief to a capital-murder defendant on Brady grounds. In Wearry v. Cain, the High Court held that the trial prosecutor's failure to disclose material evidence violated Mr. Wearry's due-process rights.

The evidence at issue included police records casting doubt on the credibility of the state's star witness, an inmate who claimed to have been present at the murder. According to the records, the inmate had been overheard by another inmate saying that he wanted to "make sure [Wearry] gets the needle 'cause he jacked me over." The prosecutor also failed to disclose evidence that another inmate-witness, who also claimed personal knowledge of the crime, had sought to reduce an existing sentence in exchange for his testimony. Contrary to this fact, the prosecutor had stated during opening at trial that the witness "hasn't asked for a thing," and argued in closing that the witness had testified solely because the victim's family "deserves to know" what happened.

The state postconviction court concluded that the prosecutor "probably ought to have" disclosed this evidence, but denied relief, finding no prejudice. The United States Supreme Court disagreed. Discussing Brady's familiar materiality standard, the Court made two important points:

First, the materiality of multiple pieces of withheld evidence must be considered cumulatively, rather than each in isolation.

Second, the materiality standard is met if the new evidence is sufficient to undermine confidence in the verdict. This does not require a showing that the defendant more likely than not would have been acquitted had the evidence been admitted. And, "[g]iven this legal standard, Wearry can prevail even if . . . the undisclosed information may not have affected the jury's verdict."

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