Turner v. United States, USSC No. 15-1503, and Overton v. United States, USSC No. 15-1504, cert. granted, consolidated for argument and decision, 12/14/16
Question presented (as formulated by SCOTUS)
Whether the petitioners’ convictions must be set aside under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963).
Lower court opinion (for both cases): Turner, et al., v. United States, 116 A.3d 894 (D.C. 2015)
The Court’s broad statement of the question presented obscures the various issues raised in the case, which arises out of a gruesome assault and murder in Washington, D.C., in 1984. The eight defendants—all teens or young men at the time of trial—were convicted on the testimony of eyewitnesses whose credibility was deeply suspect because they contradicted their own prior statements, each other, and the physical evidence from the crime scene. Since the original trial, nearly all of the witnesses still alive have recanted. And, bringing us to the topic of this cert grant, post-trial investigations discovered that the prosecution withheld evidence from the defense. Some of that evidence was in existence at the time of the original trial; some of it came to light only after the trial was over. Most significantly, the prosecution withheld evidence about two other possible perpetrators, one of whom was convicted of an astonishingly similar crime committed in 1992 within blocks of the one in this case. The prosecution also withheld evidence contradicting its theory that the crime was committed by a large group rather than a single person as well as additional evidence that would have impeached its witnesses.s
The defendants collaterally attacked their conviction, arguing the prosecution violated Brady because the withheld evidence was favorable to the defense and was “material,” which turns on whether “there is any reasonable likelihood [the evidence] could have affected the judgment of the jury.” See, e.g., Wearry v. Cain, 136 S. Ct. 1002, 1006 (2016) (per curiam). The D.C. Court of Appeals arguably misapplied this standard by concluding that what was at issue in the case was “the basic structure of how the crime occurred,” which in turn required the defendants to show a reasonable probability that the withheld evidence would have led the jury “to doubt virtually everything” about the government’s case. 116 A.3d at 926. It also refused to consider evidence about the alternative perpetrator that came to light after the trial, and concluded that the other new evidence had little prospect of changing the result at trial.
Expect, then, that the Court will weigh in on all these topics, and maybe others, which could make this decision pivotal in the further development (or deterioration) of the law governing the government’s duty to disclose evidence.
UPDATE (1/4/17): For much more on the case, see this detailed post at the Open File.