Supreme Court Orders New Trial in Murder Case Where Prosecutors Withheld Evidence – Smith v. Cain

January 25, 2012 by David S. Seltzer

As a criminal defense attorney in south Florida, I am part of a legal system that relies on adversaries to share certain specified information about cases. Information-sharing at the start of a criminal prosecution is called discovery, and it is not optional — withholding important information is punishable when the judge discovers it. However, prosecutors eager to get a conviction sometimes withhold evidence anyway — and judges don’t always find out, or react properly when they do. This can create a wrongful conviction requiring a retrial or a even a court order allowing the defendant to go free. That was the allegation in Smith v. Cain, a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling alleging that New Orleans prosecutors failed to disclose contradictory statements made by the one eyewitness to the murder of five people. Because of that failure, the high court vacated the conviction of Juan Smith.

Smith was convicted for the murders and armed robbery on the testimony of Larry Boatner. Boatner said he was at a friend’s when armed gunmen burst in and demanded money and drugs, then began shooting. There were no other witnesses, and no physical evidence that Smith was involved. Boatner’s testimony at trial said Smith was the first gunman to come through the door. However, after Smith was convicted and began petitioning for post-conviction relief, he obtained police files with notes showing that Boatner had repeatedly told police he couldn’t identify the gunmen. In one note, Boatner said that he could only describe them as black males; in another, he said he wouldn’t know them if he saw them again because he couldn’t see their faces. Boatner alleged that this violated 1963’s Brady v. Maryland, which requires police to share relevant evidence. After his rejection by lower courts, the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

In a surprisingly brief opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts reversed all of the lower courts, vacating Smith’s conviction. Brady says prosecutors violate the defendant’s constitutional right to due process by withholding material evidence favorable to the defense; the two sides disagreed on whether Boatner’s statements to police were material. The majority found that it was. Established law says evidence is material when it may reasonably have changed the case’s outcome, at least enough to undermine confidence in the trial. The court wrote that this standard was met, both because the prosecutors in Smith’s case didn’t have enough evidence outside of Boatner’s statements to convict Smith, and because Boatner’s testimony directly contradicted his statements to police. A considerably longer dissent by Justice Thomas argued that the majority had failed to properly consider prosecutors’ arguments.

This decision reiterates support for existing law, but it’s still good news for criminal defendants and Miami-Dade criminal defense lawyers like me, because it strengthens the well-established rule that prosecutors may not withhold favorable evidence. To do otherwise would undermine the criminal justice process by allowing prosecutors to give themselves an unfair advantage. After all, juries cannot decide cases based on evidence they never see, nor can defendants construct their best possible cases without knowing material facts involved in the prosecution. In the nearly 50 years since the Brady decision, courts have established that this includes evidence that could impeach a witness as well as exculpatory evidence. As a Fort Lauderdale criminal defense lawyer, I appreciate having the opportunity to make the best possible case for my clients without misconduct by prosecutors.

If you’re charged with a crime in Florida and you’d like to talk to an experienced defense attorney about your case and your rights, don’t hesitate to call Seltzer Law, P.A. We offer free, confidential case evaluations, and because we know the police don’t stop working after 5 p.m., we’re reachable 24 hours a day and seven days a week. You can send us an email or call 1-888-THE-DEFENSE (1-888-843-3333) anytime.

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