Failure to disclose exculpatory evidence violated due process in Death Penalty Case

By Jessica Smith
W. R. Kenan, Jr. Distinguished Professor
School of Government
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Wearry v. Cain, 577 U.S. ___ (Mar. 7, 2016) (per curiam). In this capital case, the prosecution’s failure to disclose material evidence violated the defendant’s due process rights. At trial the defendant unsuccessfully raised an alibi defense and was convicted. The case was before the Court after the defendant’s unsuccessful post-conviction Brady claim. Three pieces of evidence were at issue. First, regarding State’s witness Scott, the prosecution withheld police records showing that two of Scott’s fellow inmates had made statements that cast doubt on Scott’s credibility. One inmate reported hearing Scott say that he wanted to make sure the defendant got “the needle cause he jacked over me.” The other inmate told investigators that he had witnessed the murder. However, he recanted the next day, explaining that “Scott had told him what to say” and had suggested that lying about having witnessed the murder “would help him get out of jail.” Second, regarding State’s witness Brown, the prosecution failed to disclose that, contrary to its assertions at trial that Brown, who was serving a 15-year sentence, “hasn’t asked for a thing,” Brown had twice sought a deal to reduce his existing sentence in exchange for his testimony. And third, the prosecution failed to turn over medical records on Randy Hutchinson. According to Scott, on the night of the murder, Hutchinson had run into the street to flag down the victim, pulled the victim out of his car, shoved him into the cargo space, and crawled into the cargo space himself. But Hutchinson’s medical records revealed that, nine days before the murder, Hutchinson had undergone knee surgery to repair a ruptured patellar tendon. An expert witness testified at the state collateral-review hearing that Hutchinson’s surgically repaired knee could not have withstood running, bending, or lifting substantial weight. The State presented an expert witness who disagreed regarding Hutchinson’s physical fitness. Concluding that the state court erred by denying the defendant’s Brady claim, the Court stated: “Beyond doubt, the newly revealed evidence suffices to undermine confidence in [the defendant’s] conviction. The State’s trial evidence resembles a house of cards, built on the jury crediting Scott’s account rather than [the defendant’s] alibi.” It continued: “Even if the jury—armed with all of this new evidence—could have voted to convict [the defendant], we have no confidence that it would have done so.” (quotations omitted). It further found that in reaching the opposite conclusion, the state post-conviction court improperly evaluated the materiality of each piece of evidence in isolation rather than cumulatively, emphasized reasons a juror might disregard new evidence while ignoring reasons she might not, and failed even to mention the statements of the two inmates impeaching Scott.

 

Supreme Court Opinion

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