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Upcoming Supreme Court Cases Could Clarify Standard Requiring Disclosure of Exculpatory Evidence

Prosecutorial misconduct, including withholding evidence favorable to the defense, is the most common cause of wrongful convictions in death penalty cases, but prosecutors frequently fail to disclose this evidence, narrowly interpreting the U.S. Supreme Court's 1963 decision in Brady v. Maryland calling for its disclosure. On March 29, the Court will hear two consolidated cases—Turner v. United States and Overton v. United States—that raise questions under Brady as to when courts should grant defendants a new trial when prosecutors fail to disclose exculpatory evidence to the defense. While the Court may narrowly address Brady's application to these two cases, attorney and legal commentator Bidish Sarma argues that Turner-Overton presents an opportunity for the Court to "clarify principles and curtail the confusion that permeates lower courts’ opinions." Prosecutors currently argue that they may consider the materiality of evidence that favors the defense when they decide whether to disclose that evidence. Others say all evidence favorable to the defense must be disclosed, irrespective of materiality. Withholding favorable evidence from the defense appears to work—a study by the VERITAS Initiative of Santa Clara University School of Law and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers found that courts upheld convictions in 86 percent of the cases in which they found that prosecutors had suppressed exculpatory evidence. An amicus brief by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, FreedomWorks, Cause of Action Institute, and American Legislative Exchange Council urges the Court to make it clear that prosecutors must turn over all evidence favorable to the defense, saying, "[r]equiring production of all favorable evidence solves the problem that prosecutors face in administering the current materiality standard." A recent study by the National Registry of Exonerations found that more than half of all murder exonerations involved Brady violations. According to that study, official misconduct was more common in cases involving black defendants (76%) than white defendants (63%). That disparity grew in capital cases, where 87% of death-row exonerations of black defendants involved official misconduct, compared to 67% of death-row exonerations of white defendants. A DPIC analysis of recent death-row exonerations found that police or prosecutorial misconduct was a major factor in 16 of the last 18 exonerations. DPIC's review of the National Registry's 2016 exoneration data also found that every one of the 13 murder exonerations in which prosecutors had sought or threatened to impose the death penalty involved either official misconduct or perjured testimony/false accusation, and eleven (84.6%) of them involved both. 


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As Supreme Court Denies Stay of Execution, Justice Breyer Urges Consideration of Death Row Conditions

On March 7, the United States Supreme Court denied a stay of execution for Texas death-row prisoner Rolando Ruiz, declining to consider his claim that the more than 20 years he had been incarcerated on death row, mostly in solitary confinement, violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Ruiz's lawyers had urged the Court to consider this issue, writing, "At this point, a quarter-century has elapsed since Mr. Ruiz committed a contract murder in 1992, two days after he turned twenty years old. Mr. Ruiz has lived for over two decades under a death sentence, spent almost twenty years in solitary confinement, received two eleventh-hour stays of execution, and has received four different execution dates.” Justice Stephen Breyer (pictured) agreed, saying, "Mr. Ruiz argues that his execution 'violates the Eighth Amendment' because it 'follow[s] lengthy [death row] incarceration in traumatic conditions,' principally his 'permanent solitary confinement.' I believe his claim is a strong one, and we should consider it." Breyer dissented from the Court's denial of a stay, citing the Court's "serious objections" to extended solitary confinement, which date back as far as 1890, when the Court, "speaking of a period of only four weeks of imprisonment prior to execution, said that a prisoner’s uncertainty before execution is 'one of the most horrible feelings to which he can be subjected.'" He also quoted fellow Justice Anthony Kennedy, who in 2015 urged the court to consider the constitutionality of extended solitary confinement. Justice Breyer and former Justice John Paul Stevens have repeatedly questioned the constitutionality of prolonged incarceration under death-row conditions, but the Court has never reviewed the issue. Long stays on death row are increasingly common: the Fair Punishment Project estimates about 40% of death row inmates have spent more than 20 years on death row. These delays, Breyer noted in Ruiz's case, are "attributable to the State or the lower courts." Ruiz was the fifth prisoner executed in the U.S. in 2017 and the third in Texas. Prior to his execution, he expressed his remorse to the victim's family, saying, “Words cannot begin to express how sorry I am and the hurt I have caused you and your family. May this bring you peace and forgiveness.”


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Supreme Court Grants Relief to Duane Buck in Texas Racial Bias Death Penalty Case

Saying that the "law punishes people for what they do, not who they are," the Supreme Court on February 22, 2017, granted relief to Duane Buck (pictured, right), a Texas death-row prisoner who was sentenced to death after his own lawyer presented testimony from a psychologist who told the jury Buck was more likely to commit future acts of violence because he is black. Writing for the six-Justice majority, Chief Justice Roberts (pictured, left) said that "[d]ispensing punishment on the basis of an immutable characteristic flatly contravenes this guiding principle." Buck's case turned on the legal question of whether his lawyer had provided ineffective assistance. The Court left no doubt on the issue. Chief Justice Roberts wrote that "[n]o competent defense attorney would introduce such evidence about his own client." Despite counsel's deficient representation, the lower federal courts had refused to intervene, asserting that the references to race in the case had been brief and would have had only minimal, if any, effect on the jury's sentencing decision. The Chief Justice squarely rejected that conclusion, writing: "when a jury hears expert testimony that expressly makes a defendant’s race directly pertinent on the question of life or death, the impact of that evidence cannot be measured simply by how much air time it received at trial or how many pages it occupies in the record. Some toxins can be deadly in small doses." The Court explained that stereotyping black men as somehow more violence-prone than others is a "particularly noxious strain of racial prejudice." Buck's attorney, Christina Swarns, who had argued the case before the Court in October 2016, said “Today, the Supreme Court made clear that there is no place for racial bias in the American criminal justice system.” The decision, she said, reaffirms "the longstanding principle that criminal punishments—particularly the death penalty—cannot be based on immutable characteristics such as race.” Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justice Samuel Alito, dissented.


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