Supreme Court Rejects Brady Claim In Defeat For Prosecutorial Accountability

The U.S. Supreme Court handed down its opinion in the consolidated cases of Turner v. United States and Overton v. United States last week, rejecting the defendant’s “Brady” claims and affirming their convictions. The Court focussed on whether there was a reasonable probability that the disclosure of the exculpatory evidence would have led to a different verdict— the majority concluded that the suppressed evidence “is too little, too weak, or too distant from the main evidentiary points to meet Brady’s standards.” The conclusion is particularly troubling since a lot of evidence was suppressed in the case, and because the opportunity to make an important statement about prosecutorial accountability was missed.

From the amicus briefs:

Former prosecutors’ brief (34 of them):

  • Public confidence in the criminal justice system is particularly threatened at this time
  • Based on experience, this is not a close case—the Petitioners should win new trials
  • Prosecutorial suppression of exculpatory evidence is a perennial problem
  • The suppressed evidence here was quintessential Brady material

Cato Institute brief:

  • The Court should not permit lower courts to implicitly raise threshold for materiality; the court below “severe misapplied” materiality standard in this case
  • Lower courts keep getting Brady materiality wrong and SCOTUS has had to keep intervening
  • Brady violations are too common, and the ruling below encourages more of them

Brief for Texas Public Policy Foundation, FreedomWorks, Cause of Action Institute, and American Legislative Exchange Council:

  • The Court should replace its materiality test with the Chapman harmless-error standard
  • Long-running efforts to fix the Brady materiality have failed; the standard is susceptible to narrow reading and application
  • The Department of Justice has resisted reform efforts to broaden the prosecutorial duty to disclose
  • Court should make the prosecutors’ constitutional duty to disclose clear—all favorable evidence should be turned over
  • Requiring prosecutors to turn over all exculpatory evidence, regardless of materiality, solves the deep problem of asking prosecutors to apply materiality test in a pre-trial anticipatory posture

Innocence Network brief:

  • Brady promotes truth-seeking and fair trials
  • This case involves quintessential Brady material, and Brady material is key to preventing wrongful convictions
  • Evidence pointing to other possible perpetrators is of “paramount value”
  • This sort of alternate-perpetrator evidence should be considered presumptively material, particularly where physical evidence is lacking
  • Courts can, should, and do consider evidence discovered after trial when conducting Brady analyses

National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers brief:

  • Defense attorneys could have used suppressed evidence to create a compelling and coherent narrative that the alternate perpetrator was responsible for the crime
  • The decision below improperly minimized the importance of each piece of exculpatory evidence
  • By withholding evidence, the Government was able to turn the defendants against each other rather than enabling them to come up with a cohesive strategy

Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth:

  • False confessions cause wrongful convictions
  • This case presents the hallmarks of false confessions
  • The majority opinion below assumed the confession was legitimate
  • The Brady evidence of another possible perpetrator would help show a confession is false

Brief filed on behalf of Wilfredo Lora by G.W. Law School Dean Alan Morrison:

  • The Government should bear the burden of demonstrating why suppressed evidence did not influence the verdict
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One thought on “Supreme Court Rejects Brady Claim In Defeat For Prosecutorial Accountability

  1. Kimball Dimmick

    I like your blog, but I disagree with your comments. This case is not, and should not be about sending a message to prosecutors, like you imply. “Prosecutorial accountability” is not at risk when useless leads are discovered by appellate lawyers. These leads were characterized as “exculpatory evidence” by a defense team determined to win a new trial no matter how flimsy the grounds. I picture them sitting up late at night scheming over a way to turn these leads into a plausible alternate theory. The problems with the defense team’s alternative theory are outlined at length in the syllabus that precedes the opinion. The problem with your idea to turn this case into an “important statement” is first that the prosecutors did nothing wrong, and second, it is very unlikely that the defendants could be convicted a second time over 32 years after the murder took place. I’m sure you know that. Cases should be decided on their merits, not on their value as messages.

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