The United States Supreme Court today reversed the capital murder conviction of a Louisiana death row prisoner and ordered that he be given a new trial in light of the prosecutor’s despicable decision to withhold exculpatory evidence from the defense team. The name of the case is Wearry v. Cain.
In April of 1998, a man named Eric Walber was murdered. Almost two years later, a Louisiana inmate named Sam Scott told the police the defendant had committed the murder. Scott’s story was clearly concocted from the beginning; he said the defendant admitted to shooting the victim and leaving his body on a particular street when, in fact, the victim had not been shot and his body was found in a different location. Scott made four subsequent statements, and each statement was different. His trial testimony did not remotely resemble the original statement he gave to the police. Part of Scott’s story involved a man named Eric Brown, who had allegedly seen the defendant on the evening in question with someone who looked like the victim. Brown was serving a 15-year prison sentence for a drug conviction at the time of his testimony against the defendant, but he insisted he did not ask for any favors from the prosecutor. Instead, he claimed to be testifying solely because his sister had a relationship with the victim’s sister. The prosecutor reminded the jury on multiple occasions that Brown didn’t ask for any consideration, and he did not have a deal with the government.
The defendant advanced an alibi defense at trial. He presented evidence that at the time of the murder, he was attending a wedding reception 40 miles away. Three witnesses testified and supported his alibi defense at trial. The jury rejected the defendant’s alibi defense, found him guilty of murder, and sentenced him to death.
During post-conviction proceedings, it came to light that the police knew two of Scott’s fellow inmates provided information that reflected poorly on his credibility. One inmate said Scott stated he wanted to make sure the defendant was executed because of a prior problem between the two men, and another inmate said Scott pressured him to lie about witnessing the murder in order to get out of jail. It was also revealed during the appellate process that Brown had twice requested a deal to reduce his prison time in exchange for testifying against the defendant, which directly contradicted Brown’s trial testimony and the prosecutor’s insistence that Brown never asked for a deal. There was additional exculpatory evidence that the prosecutor failed to produce to the defendant during the trial.
An intermediate state appeals court in Louisiana and the Louisiana Supreme Court affirmed the defendant’s conviction and sentence. The United States Supreme Court reversed, concluding the Louisiana courts had “egregiously misapplied settled law.” More than 50 years ago, the Supreme Court ruled in Brady v. Maryland that the government is required to provide exculpatory evidence to criminal defendants when the evidence is material to either the defendant’s guilt or his punishment. Material evidence is any evidence that reasonably could have affected the judgment of the jury. This case involved a credibility contest between Scott and the defendant. The Court pointed out the only direct evidence of the defendant’s guilt was Scott’s “dubious” testimony corroborated by Brown’s “similarly suspect” testimony. The jury very well might have been swayed by evidence of Scott’s repeated inconsistencies and biases along with evidence of Brown’s scheme to gain early release from jail. The Court said although the jury might have still convicted, it was not confident the jury would have done so. Accordingly, the Court found the defendant’s due process rights were violated, reversed his conviction and death sentence, and remanded the case to the trial court for a new trial.
It’s tempting to believe that withholding exculpatory evidence could only happen in the notoriously unjust deep South. But just last year, it was revealed that the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office withheld exculpatory evidence for more than 16 months in a murder case. Too often prosecutors forget they are responsible not for winning cases, but with doing justice.