Court to clarify suspects’ Brady rights

The Supreme Court, moving to fill out further a thin docket for decisions this Term, on Wednesday added three new controversies, including a pair of appeals growing out of a gruesome murder in the nation’s capital more than three decades ago, when all but one of those found guilty were teenagers. Their two appeals, combined for a single ruling, could clarify the constitutional duty of prosecutors to hand over to defense lawyers items of evidence that could help gain a not-guilty verdict.

The facade of the United States Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C.
The facade of the United States Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C.

The facade of the United States Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C.

In their appeals, one by six of those convicted and another by a seventh, their lawyers protested that a series of findings that turned up in the years after the 1985 trial was over had been withheld by prosecutors. Rather than limiting review to those specific claims, the Court said it would look at their cases as a whole, to see if their convictions should be overturned.

At issue is the constitutional duty that the Court imposed on prosecutors in a 1963 decision, Brady v. Maryland. Although that duty has been binding now for more than a half-century, the new appeals argued that lower courts remain uncertain about how to weigh the significance of evidence that prosecutors had withheld.

In order to prove a violation of the Brady decision, a suspect’s defense lawyer must show that the withheld evidence was likely to have altered the outcome of the trial if it had been brought out there. In technical terms, the evidence must be shown to be “material” to the outcome.

The two petitions described a lengthy list of evidence that they claimed prosecutors knew at the time of the trial, but did not share with the defense. Among that evidence, the petitions cited information that some witnesses at the crime suggested showed that the murder of a middle-aged woman, on her way to go shopping, had been done by only one or at most a few assailants. That directly contracted prosecutors’ main theory of the case, that the crime was carried out by a large group of attackers.

There also was evidence that a man who had been at the crime scene, but fled when police arrived, had a history of crimes of sexual violence. The victim in the 1985 murder had died from a severe beating and from being forcibly sodomizd with a metal pipe. Years after the trial, that same individual had committed a similar crime in the same neighborhood, and was convicted and sent to prison. That evidence was not available, of course, at the time of the trial, but the defense lawyers wanted to use it to challenge their convictions because prosecutors did have evidence then of that individual’s similar crimes before the trial.

Washington, D.C., police built their case first with testimony from a 16-year-old girl who was intellectually disabled and a drug user, who claimed to have heard a confession by one of the youths who was charged. She later changed her story several times. Years after the trial, the Washington Post did a lengthy investigation of the case, and turned up some of the new evidence that was not shared with the defense at the trial.

It was not clear which part of the specific claims of withheld evidence might have attracted the Justices’ attention. It may have been that the overall breadth of those claims, along with a strong argument that new guidance was needed on the Brady issue, were the reasons the Court chose to get involved.

The release on Wednesday of the order granting review of that and the two other new cases was unusual, because the Court had appeared to have finished issuing orders for the week on Monday, before beginning a four-week recess over the holiday and the end of the year. The new cases apparently were studied more closely to be sure that they raised significant issues that would not be likely to go away before decisions could be reached. The granted cases are Turner v. United States and Overton v. United States. The Court granted review even though the Justice Department had argued against doing so, contending that local courts in Washington got the decisions right.

Here, in brief, are the issues in the other two new cases.

The Court will make a new attempt to sort out when a non-citizen faces deportation for a criminal conviction, when the individual was urged by a defense lawyer to plead guilty because the evidence was strong, but also told the individual — mistakenly — that a guilty plea to that crime would not lead to deportation. The Court has said previously that such flawed legal advice can lead to a new trial. The new case involves a native of South Korea who grew up in this country and became a successful restaurant owner in Memphis. He was convicted of distributing pills of the ecstasy drug. The case is Lee v. United States.

In a highly significant case involving patent law, the Court agreed to decide where lawsuits claiming infringement of a patent can be filed. In recent years, so-called “patent trolls,” who buy patents just to try to turn them into money-makers by suing others for infringement damages, have been concentrating the filling of their cases in just a few federal courts where they believe their claim will get a friendly reception. A surprising proportion of those cases is being filed in just one federal court in Texas.

The issue of the proper location for infringement lawsuits arose in a patent dispute between an Indiana food company — Heartland Food Group — that produces water products that are sweetened or flavored. It has been sued in Delaware for infringement by the giant Kraft Foods Group because Kraft is incorporated there, but Heartland has no place of business in that state — for decades, the basis for court jurisdiction over a patent infringement case. This case is not about “patent trolling,” as such, but that kind of legal maneuvering was a main part of Heartland’s appeal, and apparently was a major factor in the Justices’ willingness to rule on the venue issue.

Legendary journalist Lyle Denniston is Constitution Daily’s Supreme Court correspondent. Denniston has written for us as a contributor since June 2011 and he has covered the Supreme Court since 1958. His work also appears on lyldenlawnews.com, where this story first appeared.

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