Wearry v. Cain, 577 U.S.__ (2016), SCOTUS Reversal for Brady Violations

This is an excellent per curiam opinion, with a dissent authored by Justice Alito and joined by Justice Thomas, and should remind the State– yet again— that their convictions will not stand when they do not play fair.

Wearry was a death-sentenced inmate in Louisiana (not after today!).  Nearly two years after the decedent in this case was murdered, Sam Scott (who was then incarcerated) reached out to law enforcement and implicated Wearry in the crime.  Scott gave a number of shifting and inconsistent statements, but of course the State was quite willing to use him as one of their star witnesses nevertheless.  At trial, Wearry offered an alibi defense.  He said he had been at a wedding reception in Baton Rouge, 40 miles from the where the murder occurred.

Once Wearry was convicted, and sentenced to death, it became clear that the State failed to disclose material evidence that would have weakened the State’s case.  First, the State failed to disclose police records that showed that two of Sam Scott’s fellow inmates had made statements that cast doubt on Scott’s credibility.  One inmate gave a statement tending to show that Scott may have singled out Wearry due to a personal grievance.  The other inmate gave a statement indicating that Scott coached that inmate to lie to police about Wearry so that he could get out of jail.

The State also failed to disclose that another witness, Eric Brown, had twice sought a deal for his testimony in Wearry’s case.   And third, the State failed to turn over the medical records of Randy Hutchinson, a person who Sam Scott had testified ran into the street on the night of the murder, pulled the victim out of the car, shoved him into a cargo space, and then crawled into a cargo space.  Hutchinson’s medical records would have revealed that, 9 days before the murder, Hutchinson had undergone surgery to repair a ruptured patellar tendon, and thus would not likely have been able to undertake the physical actions ascribed to him by Scott.  During the post-conviction relief proceeding, the State presented expert testimony that disputed this.  The High Court had no problem concluding that Louisiana’s denial of Wearry’s Brady claim “runs up against settled constitutional principles” and violated Wearry’s right to due process.

“[T]he suppression by the prosecution of evidence favorable to an accused upon request violates due process where the evidence is material either to guilt or to punishment, irrespective of the good faith or bad faith of the prosecution.”  Brady at 87.  See also Giglio v. United States, 405 U.S. 150, 153-54 (1972).  Evidence qualifies as material when there is “’any reasonable likelihood’” it could have “’affected the judgment of the jury.’” Giglio, supra, at 154 (quoting Napue v. Illinois, 360 U.S. 264, 271 (1959).  Additionally, the Court took the Louisiana high court to task for assessing the materiality of each piece of evidence in isolation and not cumulatively.  See Kyles v. Whitley, 514 U.S. 419, 441 (1995) (requiring “cumulative evaluation” of the materiality of wrongfully withheld evidence).

Justices Alito and Thomas joined in their predictable dissent, essentially taking the majority to task for taking up such a fact-intensive case, and in this procedural posture (post-PCR and not post-habeas).  Having resolved the Brady claim, the Court did not address an additional ineffective assistance of counsel claim.  Congratulations for an outstanding job to Mr. Wearry’s counsel, Ed Cassidy and the pro bono team at Fredrikson and Byron, Tilde Carbia, and Aaron Novod.