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Supreme Court throws out murder conviction for undisclosed evidence

Posted on in Criminal Defense

During the same week that the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision to leave eyewitness identification analysis alone, the high court threw out a murder conviction because prosecutors did not disclose that an eyewitness who testified against the defendant at trial initially told police that he could not identify the killer. For nearly 50 years, prosecutors have known that the Constitution requires that the state must turn over material evidence that prosecutors have that may be favorable to the criminal defense.

In overturning the criminal conviction, Chief Justice John Roberts writes, "We have observed that evidence impeaching an eyewitness may not be material if the state's other evidence is strong enough to sustain confidence in the verdict." Eight justices on the Supreme Court agreed in Tuesday's ruling that the prosecutor's failure to disclose the evidence in the murder case violated the defendant's rights, requiring a reversal of the conviction. Justice Clarence Thomas was alone in dissent.

The case arose from allegations surrounding a 1995 shooting. Five people were killed during an armed robbery in a New Orleans home. During the trial, an eyewitness told the jury that he had been "face to face with [the defendant] during the initial moments of the robbery." The Supreme Court says that testimony was the only evidence the prosecutors had linking the defendant to the crime.

After the jury returned its verdict convicting the man of five counts of murder, he obtained files from prosecutors that showed the eyewitness had told police on the night of the shootings that he "could not ID anyone because (he) couldn't see faces." That statement, which directly contradicts his trial testimony, was not given to the defense before trial. The blatant violation of the defendant's right to a fair trial resulted in the Supreme Court overturning the murder convictions.

Source: USA Today, "Supreme Court overturns New Orleans man's murder conviction," Joan Biskupic, Jan. 10, 2012

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