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SCOTUS: Brady violation requires new trial

Michael Wearry v. Burl Cain, USSC No. 14-10008, 2016 WL 854158 (per curiam) (March 7, 2016); reversing the 21st Judicial District Court, Livingston Parish, No. 01-FELN-015992, Div. A, application for writ denied, 161 So.3d 620 (La. 2015); Scotusblog page

The state violated Wearry’s due process rights under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), by withholding evidence that would have affected the credibility of witnesses implicating Wearry in a capital murder. Wearry is therefore entitled to a new trial.

The evidence withheld by the state involved: statements of inmates that Scott, a crucial state’s witness to Wearry’s purported role in the crime, was trying to get them to lie to support Scott’s version of the offense; medical records regarding one of the other participants in the crime that undermined Scott’s credibility by raising doubts the other participant could have done what Scott claimed he did; and the fact that Brown, another of the state’s witnesses, had sought a deal to reduce his existing sentence in exchange for testifying against Wearry. (Slip op. at 1-5).

…. “[T]he suppression by the prosecution of evidence favorable to an accused upon request violates due process where the evidence is material either to guilt or to punishment, irrespective of the good faith or bad faith of the prosecution.” Brady, supra, at 87. See also Giglio v. United States, 405 U.S. 150, 153–154 (1972) (clarifying that the rule stated in Brady applies to evidence undermining witness credibility). Evidence qualifies as material when there is “‘any reasonable likelihood’” it could have “‘affected the judgment of the jury.’” Giglio, supra, at 154 (quoting Napue v. Illinois, 360 U.S. 264, 271 (1959)). To prevail on his Brady claim, Wearry need not show that he “more likely than not” would have been acquitted had the new evidence been admitted. Smith v. Cain, 565 U.S. 73, ___–___ (2012) (slip op., at 2–3) …. He must show only that the new evidence is sufficient to “undermine confidence” in the verdict. Ibid….

Beyond doubt, the newly revealed evidence suffices to undermine confidence in Wearry’s conviction. The State’s trial evidence resembles a house of cards, built on the jury crediting Scott’s account rather than Wearry’s alibi. …. [T]he only evidence directly tying [Wearry] to that crime was Scott’s dubious testimony, corroborated by the similarly suspect testimony of Brown….

…. Scott’s credibility, already impugned by his many inconsistent stories, would have been further diminished had the jury learned that Hutchinson may have been physically incapable of performing the role Scott ascribed to him, that Scott had coached another inmate to lie about the murder and thereby enhance his chances to get out of jail, or that Scott may have implicated Wearry to settle a personal score…. Moreover, any juror who found Scott more credible in light of Brown’s testimony might have thought differently had she learned that Brown may have been motivated to come forward not by his sister’s relationship with the victim’s sister—as the prosecution had insisted in its closing argument—but by the possibility of a reduced sentence on an existing conviction. …. Even if the jury—armed with all of this new evidence—could have voted to convict Wearry, we have “no confidence that it would have done so.” Smith, supra, at ___ (slip op., at 3).

Reaching the opposite conclusion, the state postconviction court improperly evaluated the materiality of each piece of evidence in isolation rather than cumulatively, see Kyles v. Whitley, 514 U.S. 419, 441 (1995) (requiring a “cumulative evaluation” of the materiality of wrongfully withheld evidence), emphasized reasons a juror might disregard new evidence while ignoring reasons she might not, cf. Porter v. McCollum, 558 U.S. 30, 43 (2009) (per curiam) (“it was not reasonable to discount entirely the effect that [a defendant’s expert’s] testimony might have had on the jury” just because the State’s expert provided contrary testimony), and failed even to mention the statements of the two inmates impeaching Scott.

(Slip op. at 7-9).

Two dissenters (Alito and Thomas) complain that the Court shouldn’t be deciding such fact-bound cases without full briefing and argument and that it shouldn’t be reversing a state postconviction court’s decision, but should first let the case be reviewed by a federal habeas court. (Dissent at 1-8).

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