Angiulo: Supreme Court Explains Why Government Must Turn Over Evidence to Defendants
Monday, March 14, 2016
The recent U.S. Supreme Court case of Wearry v. Cain puts focus on just one of the many people across the country on death row. In this matter, the defendant was charged and convicted for a murder in 1998. Twenty eight years later his conviction was reversed to correct an ommission by the prosecutor. This ommission was the failure to disclose material evidence, after request, that was favorable to the defense regarding the question of guilt or innocence.
To understand the significance of the evidence you need to know something about the case. Mr. Wearry was convicted for murdering a man in Louisianna. According to the State's star witness, Mr. Scott, the deceased was a passerby to a dice game that the defendant was losing. Testimony at trial included accusations that the defendant drove around with the victim, Mr. Scott, and another man, Mr. Brown, until a decision was made to run the victim over.
The jury was left with only testimony of various people, including Mr. Scott and Mr. Brown, and no physical evidence to help them make their decision. The credibility contest at trial included a decision whether to believe the accusatory testimony or the defendant's alibi that he was at a wedding the hours before the death approximately 40 miles away. Some time after conviction and death sentence, new evidence was discovered that had not been disclosed to the defense by the prosecution.
There were three categories of evidence that were considered in the appeal. First, were witnesses known to the Commonwealth that “cast doubt on Mr. Scott's credibility” including evidence of motive for the testimony. Second, were efforts by Mr. Brown to cut a deal with police in exchange for testimony which was contrary to the prosecutions trial argument. Finally, there were medical records for an alleged co-conspirator that tended to show Mr. Scott's version of events could not have happened because of medical condition preventing that co-conspirator from doing what was alleged.
The Supreme Court Justices had to look at the trial testimony, compare that to the new evidence, and make a decision. This decision was made in accordance with certain legal principles. These standards of law did not require bad faith by the prosecution; failure to disclose was enough no matter the reason. The law did not require the defendant to convince the justices that he would have been acquitted if he had gotten the new evidence in at trial. The evidence only had to be sufficient to undermine confidence in the verdict.
The Justices of the Supreme Court chose to overturn this conviction and ordered a new trial for Mr. Wearry. This is not a declaration of innocence. What it is, however, is an application of Constitutional principles of due process. A conviction that is flawed, like Mr. Wearry's, does not serve the purpose of our courts of law.
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