Suppressed Evidence and the Right to a Fair Trial: Turner v. United States

In 1984, Catherine Fuller, a Washington D.C. mother of six, was walking to the pharmacy when she was abducted from her neighborhood.[1] Fuller was forced into a nearby parking garage where she was robbed, beaten to death, and sodomized with a metal pole.[2] Under enormous pressure and unable to find any physical evidence, the police canvassed the area for potential witnesses, ultimately collecting more than four hundred witness statements.[3] Using these a small subset of theses statements, the police arrested seventeen people for Catherine Fuller’s murder. All but one of the suspects was a teenager. A jury deliberated for seven days before convicting eight teenage boys, of first-degree murder.[4] One of those boys, Steven Webb, died in prison. Another was released in 2010.

More than thirty years later, the six remaining boys (now men) are appealing their convictions.[5]After being sentenced, petitioners discovered that the federal prosecutors in their cases concealed witness statements that contradicted the prosecution’s theory of the case.[6] Among the concealed statements were claims that local resident, Charles Blue, had committed the crime on his own.[7] Others claimed to have seen a different man, James McMillan, fleeing the area just before police arrived.[8] Both Blue and McMillan had established histories of violence toward women. Before petitioners’ trials, Blue was convicted of murdering the local woman who reported him to the police as a potential suspect in the Fuller case[9] and McMillan beat and robbed two women in the same area.[10] Years later, McMillan was convicted of beating a third woman to death before sodomizing her.[11]

In addition to fingering alternative suspects, multiple witnesses denied having seen petitioners or any large group of kids in the area.[12] Furthermore, a witness who once claimed to have heard petitioners discuss the crime recanted her testimony before trial.[13] In light of prosecution’s failure to disclose this exculpatory evidence, petitioners filed separate appeals, asserting that the government had violated each of their rights to due process and demanding that their sentences be vacated. Because both appeals rest on common issues of fact and law, the two cases were heard together.

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals refused to vacate, holding that the new evidence was immaterial: “[the new information] adds little to the cumulative materiality analysis.”[14] Petitioners contend that, following Brady v. Maryland, the Court of Appeals failed to properly weigh the evidence. At the end of this month, the Supreme Court of the United States will hear oral argument for Turner and Overton. Among the issues to be decided will be whether the Court of Appeals erred when it concluded that the new evidence was immaterial. The answer to that question should be a resounding yes.

The rule set down by Brady was that suppression by the prosecution of evidence favorable to an accused upon request violates due process where the evidence is material either to guilt or to punishment.[15] The standard to be met is materiality ­– nothing else. Materiality is found wherever the withheld evidence has a “reasonable probability” of “undermining confidence in the verdict.”[16] The prosecution’s decision to conceal evidence that points to an alternate suspect is a Brady violation of the type that has been recognized in federal courts of appeals throughout the country. . [17]

Yet, in addressing the identification of McMillan, the court suggested that the evidence did not contradict the prosecution’s theory; the jury might have found that McMillan was part of a group of men, including petitioners, all of who murdered Fuller.[18] In holding as it did, the court implicitly shifted standards. To say that a jury might have believed that McMillan helped kill Fuller, is not to preclude the possibility that they might also have believed he acted alone. From one piece of evidence, a jury may draw two reasonable conclusions. By insisting that the existence of an alternate explanation renders relevant facts immaterial, the court implies that the burden is on petitioners to show the unreasonableness of all alternate influences. However, quite the opposite standard is true. In order for petitioners’ evidence to be immaterial, respondents must show that the evidence has no reasonable likelihood of undercutting the strength of the jury’s conviction. To say that the evidence might not sway a jury is quite different than to say that the evidence could not sway the jury. Therefore, the Court of Appeals erred when it decided that the suppressed evidence was immaterial and the Supreme Court should reverse. To do otherwise would be to do violence to the guarantees of due process, which the Brady rule was meant to protect.

 

[1] Brief for the United States in Opposition at 3, Turner v. United States & Overton v. United States, Nos. 15-503 and 15-504 (Oct. 14, 2016).

[2] Id., at 4.

[3] Brief for Former Prosecutors as Amici Curiae in Support of Petitioners at 2, Turner v. United States, No. 15-503 (Jul. 14, 2016).

[4] Id., at 2–3.

[5] Brief for Petitioners at 29, Turner v United States, No. 15-503 (Jan. 27, 2017)

[6] Id., at 17.

[7] Id., at 18.

[8] Id., at 19.

[9] Id., at 18

[10] Id. At 19-20.

[11] Id. At 20.

[12] Brief for Former Prosecutors as Amici Curiae in Support of Petitioners at 2, Turner v. United States, No. 15-503 (Jul. 14, 2016).

[13] Brief for the United States in Opposition at 8, Turner v. United States & Overton v. United States, Nos. 15-503 and 15-504 (Oct. 14, 2016).

[14] Id., at 11.

[15] Brady v. Maryland, 37 U.S. 83, 87 (1963).

[16] Kyles v Whitley, 514 U.S. 419, 433­–437 (1995)

[17] See, e.g., Gumm v. Mitchell, 775 F.3d 345, 364 (6th Cir. 2014)

[18] Brief for Petitioners at 35, Turner v United States, No. 15-503 (Jan. 27, 2017)

[19] Kyles 514 U.S. 419 at 433­–437.

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