Conviction Reversed for Prosecutor Withholding Evidence
This ruling should be cheered by all defense attorneys including those in California, as the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling applies nationwide.
The evidence at issue was notes from a detective that contradicted the lone witness for the prosecution. The prosecutor never turned the notes over to the defense attorney before the conviction was reached. The notes stated that the one witness, “could not identify anyone because [he] couldn’t see faces” and “would not know them if [he] saw them.” However, at trial, the witness identified Defendant Juan Smith as the gunman and testified that he came face to face with him when Smith allegedly robbed and killed five people.Summary in 40 Words or Less: When the DA does not produce evidence that would reasonably be likely to produce a different result (i.e. cause the jury to decide against a conviction), the DA has committed a Brady violation. This article exemplifies how this can happen.
The Supreme Court was careful to clarify this standard by saying that, generally speaking, impeachment evidence may not be material if the prosecution’s other evidence is strong enough to sustain confidence in the verdict. Here, however, the eyewitness’s testimony was the only evidence connecting Smith to the murders and the undisclosed statements from the eyewitness contradicted his trial testimony. Thus, the Supreme Court had no difficulty finding such undisclosed statements were material.
In opposing Smith’s petition to the Supreme Court, the prosecution argued that the eyewitness’ statements that he “couldn’t identify anyone because he couldn’t see faces” were itself unreliable. The prosecution argued that the statement was made because the lone alleged eyewitness feared retaliation. In response, the Supreme Court said such arguments were only speculative, as there was no evidence showing the witness feared retaliation.
Also, in the four months that passed after the shootings, the witness viewed fourteen six person line-ups (“six packs”) with Defendant in just one line up. The witness spotted Defendant in that one and no other line-up. When he did identify Defendant, he said, “This is it. I’ll never forget that face.” Moreover, Justice Thomas found the reliability of the witness’s identification was extensively tested at trial.
Lastly, Justice Thomas noted that the witness did fear retaliation, as he testified at trial that after the shooting, he had trouble sleeping, he had nightmares, quit his job and began drinking heavily.
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