Oral argument: Nov. 8, 2011
Appealed from: Supreme Court of Louisiana (Sep. 24, 2010)
Petitioner Juan Smith was the sole person convicted of killing five people in a Louisiana home. His conviction was primarily based on the testimony of a witness, a survivor of the shooting, who identified Smith as one of the gunmen responsible for the crime. In subsequent applications for review, Smith contended that his trial was unfair because the prosecution intentionally suppressed material evidence. In this case, Smith argues that the suppression of that evidence constituted a violation of his constitutional due process rights; he supports this argument by seeking to show that the suppressed evidence undermines confidence in the jury’s verdict against him. While Smith insists that he is entitled to a new trial, Respondent Burl Cain, warden of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, insists that the evidence was neither material nor suppressed, thus opposing a new trial. This case may affect the standard to which a prosecutor is held with regard to disclosure of evidence.
In this criminal case, the state trial court, the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal, and the Louisiana Supreme Court, without making any factual findings, or providing any reasons for their rulings, denied Petitioner Juan Smith post-conviction relief. Smith contends that the state courts reached this result only by disregarding firmly established precedents of this Court regarding suppression of material evidence favorable to a defendant and presentation of false or misleading evidence by a prosecutor.
1. Is there a reasonable probability that, given the cumulative effect of the Brady and Napue/Giglio violations in Smith’s case, the outcome of the trial would have been different?
2. Did the Louisiana state courts ignore fundamental principles of due process in rejecting Smith’s Brady and Napue/Giglio claims?
Whether evidence proffered by Smith, which he claims was suppressed and thus not available to the defense at trial, is material, and whether there is a reasonable possibility that this evidence could have affected the outcome of the trial.
A Louisiana state court convicted Petitioner Juan Smith of participating in the 1995 shooting murder of five people, and sentenced Smith to life in prison without parole. See Brief for Petitioner, Juan Smith at 2; Brief for Respondent, Burl Cain, Warden at 1. While two of the three survivors saw the gunmen responsible for the crime, only one survivor, Larry Boatner, identified Smith as one of the perpetrators. See Brief for Petitioner at 5. This identification came several months after the shooting, when Boatner saw a photo of Smith in a local newspaper article naming Smith as a potential suspect in the crime. See id. at 6–7; Brief for Respondent at 11. The prosecution in the case lacked direct evidence of Smith’s guilt, such as fingerprints or a murder weapon. See Brief for Petitioner at 8, 22. As a result, Boatner’s identification of Smith formed the lynchpin of the prosecution’s argument. See id.
Following this conviction, Smith was tried and convicted of a separate set of murders occurring one month prior to those committed in the first trial. See State v. Smith, 793 So. 2d 1199, 1201 (La. 2001). At sentencing in this second trial, Smith received the death penalty. See id.
Soon thereafter, Smith applied for post-conviction relief, claiming that the prosecution in the first trial—the home shooting—withheld significant exculpatory evidence. See Brief for Petitioner at 12. Smith claimed that, under the rule in Brady v. Maryland, the suppression of evidence denied him due process of law. See id.; Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 86 (1963). Upon request and court order, the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office, which prosecuted Smith, produced evidence allegedly favorable to Smith. See Brief for Petitioner at 12.
Specifically, the prosecution revealed that, in three previous interviews with the police, Boatner failed to identify any of the gunmen involved in the shooting. See Brief for Petitioner at 12–13. Furthermore, survivors other than Boatner stated in police interviews that all the perpetrators wore masks over their faces, thus placing in doubt Boatner’s assertion that the gunman—later identified as Smith—had a low-cut haircut and gold teeth. See id. at 14, 16. Additionally, the notes of detective John Ronquillo indicate that police obtained information from Phillip Young—another accused perpetrator—suggesting that Smith was not present on the night of the shootings. See id. at 17–18. Furthermore, ammunition casings found at the scene did not match the confiscated nine-millimeter gun that Smith allegedly used. See id. at 18–19. Finally, Eric Rogers, a prison inmate, stated in a police interview that his cellmate had been a member of the group that committed the shootings. id. at 20–21. Rogers, however, did not identify Smith as a member of the group See id.
With this new information in hand, Smith filed a supplemental application for post-conviction relief, and received a trial court evidentiary hearing. See Brief for Petitioner at 22. Because the prosecution in Smith’s trial lacked direct evidence of guilt—and because Smith’s conviction rested so heavily on the testimony of a single identifying witness—Smith based his defense at the hearing on the insufficiency of the prosecution’s evidence. See id. Smith claimed that, had the prosecution disclosed the exculpatory evidence during his trial, he would have changed his strategy and approach to the case. See id. at 22–23. Furthermore, because the jury never had the opportunity to hear the exculpatory evidence, Smith contended that the verdict against him was unreliable. See id. at 30–31.
Ruling from the bench, the trial judge denied Smith’s request for post-conviction relief. See Brief for Petitioner at 25. Following this ruling, Smith applied for discretionary review at the Louisiana Court of Appeal, and then at the Louisiana Supreme Court, but each denied the application without comment. See id. at 26. The United States Supreme Court then granted certiorari to review Smith’s case.
After initiating a criminal prosecution, due process of law requires the prosecutor to disclose evidence favorable to the defendant that materially affects the issue of guilt or punishment. See Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 86 (1963); U.S. Const. amend. V, XIV. Such evidence may include testimony concerning the actions of the defendant or other evidence that undercuts the reliability of witnesses supporting the prosecution. See Brief for Petitioner, Juan Smith at 34, 43. Here, Petitioner Juan Smith argues that the prosecution in his murder trial withheld information concerning the truthfulness of a key witness’s testimony, as well as additional information from a prison inmate indicating that Smith had not been present at the scene of the murders. See id. at 34, 50. Smith claims that this information, if disclosed, would have undermined the prosecution’s case, and would have significantly affected his defense. See id. at 45. Respondent Burl Cain, representing the Louisiana State Penitentiary, claims that all the information Smith refers to was either inadmissible as hearsay, not suppressed in the first place, unfavorable to Smith, or all of the above. See Brief for Respondent, Burl Cain, Warden at 28.
In support of Smith, the Innocence Network (“the Network”) argues that cases such as this one, in which the prosecution bases its case on the testimony of a single witness, highlight the importance of evaluating witness credibility. See Brief of Amicus Curiae The Innocence Network in Support of Petitioner at 7. The Network points out that the entirety of this case indeed depended on the ability of the jury to evaluate the truthfulness of one witness. See id. at 7–8. As such, the Network is alarmed that the jury in Smith’s case heard the witness identify Smith as the gunman, but was never told that the same witness had failed to identify any of the gunmen on three prior occasions. See id. at 14. Furthermore, even absent contradictory statements, the Network notes that eyewitness testimony is frequently mistaken. See id. at 10. The tendency of eyewitnesses toward error—and the powerful impact that eyewitness identification can have on a jury—are exemplified, the Network argues, in many DNA exoneration cases. See id. at 10–11.
Also in support of Smith, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (“NACDL”) notes that the prosecution in Smith’s case failed to disclose that another suspect in the shooting had confessed to the murders, or that a third suspect indicated Smith was not present at the time of the murders. See Brief of Amicus Curiae National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers in Support of Petitioner at 15, 17. Knowledge of either the alternate confession or the exculpatory statement, according to the NACDL, would have decreased the perceived likelihood, in the mind of jurors, that Smith committed the murders. See id. at 16–17. The NACDL argues that such disclosures—whether impeachments of credibility, alternate confessions, or exculpatory statements—actually serve the state’s interest. See id. at 20–21. Rather than simply impeding the conviction of suspects, these kinds of broad disclosures promote fair criminal trials, which are the ultimate goal of the criminal justice system. See id.
The American Bar Association (“ABA”), moreover, urges the Court to address the distinction between a prosecutor’s duties under the rule in Brady and his ethical obligations under ABA Model Rule 3.8(d). See Brief of Amicus Curiae The American Bar Association in Support of Petitioner at 6. While requesting that the Court grant Smith relief because he was denied material disclosures, the ABA also asks the Court to recognize the broader ABA Model Rule requirement, which obliges prosecutors to disclose exculpatory or favorable evidence regardless of its materiality. See id. at 10. Such a rigorous rule of disclosure, the ABA contends, frees prosecutors from determining before trial which evidence is material to the defense—a determination that is both difficult and potentially biased. See id. at 10–11.
The National District Attorneys Association (“NDAA”), however, counters that, while disclosures are important to evaluating witness truthfulness, courts must balance the due process rights of the defendant against the countervailing interests of the prosecution. See Brief of Amicus Curiae National District Attorneys Association in Support of Respondent at 12–13. Such interests include protecting witness safety, protecting the integrity of ongoing investigations, and respecting the privileged relationships through which some information is obtained. See id. The NDAA agrees that testimony establishing or challenging a witness’s truthfulness is essential to a well-functioning justice system. See id. at 15–16. However, the NDAA adds that disclosure requirements broadened to include privileged information, or information that could incite violent retaliation, will cause potential witnesses—and those testifying to their credibility—to be less likely to offer testimony. See id. Allaying potential witnesses’ fears that private information will become public, the NDAA posits, is a price that society must pay to incentivize witnesses to come forward at all. See id.
In Brady v. Maryland, the Supreme Court held that suppression of evidence that would be favorable and material to the guilt or punishment of a defendant violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and merits a new trial. See 373 U.S. 83, 86 (1963). On the other hand, where the evidence is not material or favorable, its suppression does not fall under Brady. See id. Information is deemed “material” if there is a reasonable probability that the outcome of the proceeding would be different if the information had been included. See Cone v. Bell, 129 S. Ct. 1769, 1783 (2009). In this case, the Court will determine whether Petitioner Juan Smith’s proffered evidence—which the defense obtained only after his conviction—casts sufficient doubt on his conviction to indicate a violation of due process, providing grounds for a new trial.
Materiality of the Evidence
Smith argues that the prosecution in his case, the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office, deliberately withheld material evidence. See Brief for Petitioner Juan Smith at 34. Smith claims that, under Supreme Court precedent such as Kyles v. Whitley, the prosecutor has an affirmative duty to disclose information favorable to the defendant. See 514 U.S. 419, 432–33 (1995); Brief for Petitioner at 29. Proceeding through four categories of suppressed information, Smith attempts to show how the presence of each would have caused the jury to doubt his guilt; cumulatively, Smith argues, the evidence must undermine confidence in the jury’s verdict. See Brief for Petitioner at 34.
(a) Larry Boatner’s Testimony
First, Smith addresses the evidence undermining Larry Boatner’s testimony. At trial, Boatner confidently identified Smith as one of the gunmen, providing the prosecution with its only link between Smith and the murders. See Brief for Petitioner at 34, 36. However, Boatner’s inability to describe or identify the perpetrator in three prior instances, Smith claims, casts serious doubt on his identification of Smith at trial. See id. at 35–36. Furthermore, Smith argues that notes from interviews with shooting victim Shelita Russell—who claimed the first man through the door had a mask on his face—and Dale Mims, a neighbor who said that all the men who left the house wore masks, further rebut Boatner’s identification. See id. at 36–37. Smith underscores the lack of any other evidence linking him to the crime, suggesting that, absent reliance on Boatner’s testimony, the prosecution had no case. See id. at 41–42.
Respondent Burl Cain, on the other hand, insists that Smith exaggerates the weight of evidence supposedly undermining Boatner’s identification. See Respondent’s Brief at 47–48. According to Cain, Russell’s statement can be reconciled with Boatner’s testimony because, given the chaotic nature of the shooting, it is possible they were referring to two different people. See id. at 48. Likewise, Boatner’s initial inability to identify or describe the man who held him at gunpoint would be understandable to the jury as a result of Boatner’s confusion and trauma at seeing his friends murdered. See id. at 58–59. Cain thus insists that a jury would be able to account for the contradicting evidence surrounding Boatner’s testimony, denying that there is reason to doubt the jury’s verdict. See id. at 57–58.
(b) Detective John Ronquillo’s Notes
Smith turns next to the suppressed notes of detective John Ronquillo’s interview with Phillip Young, another perpetrator accused of the shooting. See Brief for Petitioner at 43. Smith claims that Young denied Smith’s involvement in the crime: Young allegedly told Ronquillo that “Short Dog” (believed to be Smith’s alias) was not at the house where the shootings occurred. See id. at 44. Smith asserts that the defense could have introduced this evidence at trial, either by calling Young to testify or by introducing his statement as a declaration against interest by an unavailable witness (thereby circumventing the hearsay rule). See id.
While Smith accuses Ronquillo of dishonestly concealing this information, Cain’s more detailed account of Ronquillo’s interview with Young suggests that the interview yielded nothing conclusive or material. See Respondent’s Brief at 35–36. Cain first argues that Young did not provide Ronquillo with any “statement” to begin with: Young suffered severe brain damage as a result of the shooting, and communicated with Ronquillo only by blinking. See id. at 24, 36. Second, even if Ronquillo’s notes yielded anything coherent, Cain contends that the notes would not be admissible as declarations against interest because they lacked corroborating circumstances. See State v. Hammons, 597 So. 2d 990, 997 (La. 1992); Respondent’s Brief at 37–38. Furthermore, Cain notes that, as Smith’s friend, Young had motivation to falsify his statements to Ronquillo. See Respondent’s Brief at 38.
(c) Evidence Concerning the Alleged Murder Weapon
Smith’s next argument is that suppressed gun-related evidence undermines the prosecution’s theory that Smith was one of the shooters. See Brief for Petitioner at 45–46. Smith insists that Boatner’s inconsistent statements about the gun Boatner allegedly saw at the crime, combined with the firearms examiner’s finding that casings found at the scene did not match a nine-millimeter handgun (the weapon allegedly used by Smith), could lead the jury to exonerate Smith as a shooter. See id. at 48–49. Smith claims that his identification as the shooter is central to the prosecution’s case; thus the suppressed evidence related to the murder weapon would unhinge the prosecution’s trial strategy. See id.
Cain, however, attacks Smith’s gun-related argument in two ways. First, Cain claims that the firearms examiner’s testimony about the bullet casings is consistent, as the examiner was certain that the casings came from a handgun—either a nine-millimeter or a similar model. See Respondent’s Brief at 45–46. Second, Cain argues that Smith’s gun-related argument is, in any event, irrelevant: under Louisiana law, the prosecution need not prove that a criminal defendant was the actual shooter in order to convict the defendant of a shooting murder. See State v. Wright, 834 So. 2d 974, 982 (La. 2002); Respondent’s Brief at 46.
(d) Eric Rogers’s Prison Statements
Finally, Smith points to suppressed evidence indicating that Eric Rogers, a prison inmate, heard a fellow inmate confess to the shooting, thereby exculpating Smith. See Brief for Petitioner at 49–50. Specifically, Smith notes that Rogers received conflicting answers as to the identity of “Short Dog”—identified once as Juan Smith, once as Robert Home. See id. at 50. Smith also observes that Rogers failed to name Smith when listing members of the “Cut Throat Posse,” the group allegedly responsible for the shooting. See id. Smith contends that Rogers’s testimony would have allowed the defense to argue that Smith was not “Short Dog,” and thus not present at the scene of the murders. See id. at 51. Furthermore, Smith argues that, had the defense been able to question Rogers, it could have discovered Rogers’s allegation that a police officer asked him to falsely implicate Smith in the crime. See id.
Cain, on the other hand, seeks to dispel any notion of a Brady violation by noting that Smith’s own investigator was present at the time Rogers made his statement; thus, the statement could not have been suppressed. See Respondent’s Brief at 43. Furthermore, Cain denies that a police officer pressured Rogers to frame Smith, pointing to the fact that Rogers waited until the police officer’s death to allege the framing agreement. See id. at 43–44. Cain suggests that Rogers’s testimony on this point is unreliable, merely the invention of a desperate criminal. See id.
Prejudice to the Result
Each party allocates different weight to the items of suppressed evidence, leading to different conclusions as to the reliability of Smith’s trial. Smith claims that all of the evidence, taken cumulatively, creates a reasonable likelihood that the result of the proceeding would have been different had the evidence been included, thus necessitating a new trial. See Brief for Petitioner at 53. To cement his prejudice argument, Smith refers to the summary treatment his case received at the post-conviction hearing and at the appellate level, treatment which in Smith’s view amplified the unfairness of the entire proceedings against him. See id. at 54–55.
In his review of the evidence, however, Cain asserts that each disputed item was either inadmissible in trial, unsuppressed in the first place, or unfavorable to Smith. See Respondent’s Brief at 59. According to Cain, once the allegedly suppressed evidence is removed from the equation, the remaining evidence does not undermine confidence in the jury’s verdict; therefore, there is no Brady violation. See id. Finally, Cain insists that any suggestion that Smith’s review applications were not given proper consideration is baseless; according to Cain, Smith was convicted because of his guilt, not because he was denied a fair trial. See id. at 60.
The outcome of this case may affect the extent to which prosecutors are expected to disclose information favorable to the defense. Petitioner Smith argues that prosecutors should generally err on the side of disclosure. The failure to disclose in this case, Smith argues, amounted to a Brady violation of his due process rights. Respondent Cain, however, insists that no material evidence was suppressed and that Smith received a fair trial; thus there is no reason to question the jury’s determination of Smith’s guilt.
Edited by: Edan Shertzer
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LII: Fourteenth Amendment