Withheld Brady material required new trial when it comprised contradictory statements by the sole eyewitness who identified the defendant at a murder trial

Smith v. Cain, No. 10–8145, ____U.S. ____ (1/9/12) (4 pages)

The only thing remarkable about this succinct opinion from Chief Justice Roberts was that the United States Supreme Court was the first court to order a new trial, and that even one Justice dissented from the opinion. Juan Smith was convicted of a murder that occurred when two men broke in on a card game, demanded drugs and money, and started shooting, resulting in five deaths. Smith’s conviction was affirmed on direct appeal, after which he initiated state collateral relief proceedings. His attorneys then discovered notes of two interviews with the sole eyewitness who identified Mr. Smith at the murder trial wherein the witness stated he could not identify any of the shooters beyond their race, and that the shooters were wearing masks. None of the state courts saw fit to grant Mr. Smith a new trial based on the discovery of the interview notes, but the United States Supreme Court did.

The state, conceding that the statements should have been disclosed, contended that Smith was not entitled to a new trial the witness’s statements were not material to Smith’s guilt.  Reiterating maxims from past Brady cases, the Court stated that evidence is material within the ambit of Brady when there is a reasonable probability that had the evidence been disclosed, the result of the proceeding would have been different. A “reasonable probability” does not mean that the defendant would more likely than not have received a different verdict with the evidence, but only that the likelihood of a different result is great enough to undermine confidence in the outcome of the trial. Despite all of the reasons the state gave that the jury might have disregarded the undisclosed statement, it did not overcome the fact that there was one eyewitness who identified Mr. Smith as one of the murderers at trial, and one and five days after the murders he said he could not identify him. The judgment of the state court was reversed.

The case can be found here. A great National Public Radio story about this case with interviews with participants can be found here.

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