(CN) - Failure to release exonerating evidence has tainted the murder convictions of a man on death row for an unrelated massacre against the family of former New Orleans Saint Benny Thompson, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.
In March 1995, five people in a private Louisiana home were shot dead by armed men looking for drugs and money. A sixth victim, Larry Boatner, who survived with a laceration to his head identified Juan Smith as one of the three shooters.
"He claimed that he had been face to face with Smith during the initial moments of the robbery," according to the Supreme Court. "No other witnesses and no physical evidence implicated Smith in the crime."
After Smith was convicted of first-degree murder, investigators later tied him to a February 1995 home invasion, which resulted in the deaths of the 3-year-old son and ex-wife of former New Orleans Saint Benny Thompson. Tangie Thompson's fiancé, Andre White, also died in the robbery.
While on death row for the Thompson murders, Smith uncovered evidence that would help him challenge his convictions for the March home invasion.
Though Boatner identified Smith as the perpetrator, he gave a different story to lead investigator Detective John Ronquillo, according to police files.
"The notes from the night of the murder state that Boatner 'could not ... supply a description of the perpetrators other then [sic] they were black males,'" according to the majority opinion authored by Chief Justice John Roberts. "Ronquillo also made a handwritten account of a conversation he had with Boatner five days after the crime, in which Boatner said he 'could not ID anyone because [he] couldn't see faces' and 'would not know them if [he] saw them.' And Ronquillo's typewritten report of that conversation states that Boatner told Ronquillo he 'could not identify any of the perpetrators of the murder.'"
The trial judge rejected Smith's claim that this evidence violated Supreme Court precedent in Brady v. Maryland, which held that it is a violation of due process for prosecutors to suppress evidence that favor the defendant.
After the Louisiana Court of Appeal and Louisiana Supreme Court denied postconviction relief, the U.S. Supreme Court accepted Smith's petition for review.
In June, the justices said they would look for the possibility of violations of Brady v. Maryland, Giglio v. United States and Napue v. Illinois. In Giglio, the court found that defendants are entitled to a new trial if prosecutors failed to inform the jury that a witness had been promised not to be prosecuted in exchange for his testimony. In Napue, the judgment was reversed because a government witness gave false testimony.
The justices said they would also see if the outcome of Smith's case would have been different but for such alleged errors, and if the state courts improperly rejected Smith's Brady, Giglio and Napue claims.
Finding that "Boatner's undisclosed statements alone suffice to undermine confidence in Smith's conviction," the justices declined Tuesday to consider whether other undisclosed evidence also requires reversal under Brady.
In a lengthy dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas said "Smith has not shown a 'reasonable probability' that the jury would have been persuaded by the undisclosed evidence.'"
"Smith is correct that these undisclosed statements could have been used to impeach Boatner and Ronquillo during cross-examination," Thomas wrote. "But the statements are not material for purposes of Brady because they cannot 'reasonably betaken to put the whole case in such a different light as to undermine confidence in the verdict. When weighed against the substantial evidence that Boatner had opportunities to view the first perpetrator, offered consistent descriptions of him on multiple occasions, and even identified him as Smith, the undisclosed statements do not warrant a new trial.
"The evidence showed that, notwithstanding Ronquillo's on-scene note, Boatner offered a description of the perpetrator at the scene. Officer [Joseph] Narcisse testified that Boatner provided him with a description of the perpetrator that Boatner saw. Narcisse's testimony thus corroborated Boatner's trial testimony that he saw the first man and described him to police. Narcisse's testimony also mitigated the impeachment value of Ronquillo's on-scene note by indicating that, although Boatner may have provided no detailed description to Ronquillo at the scene, Boatner had described the first man to another officer."
"The evidence not only shows that Boatner described the first perpetrator twice in the immediate aftermath of the crime, but also that Boatner described him again three weeks later when he viewed a photograph array and eliminated a similar-looking individual," Thomas added. "The evidence before the jury further indicated that, several months after the crime, Boatner confidently identified Smith in an array, after evincing a discriminating, careful eye over a 4-month investigative period. What is more, the reliability of Boatner's out-of-court identification was extensively tested during cross-examination at Smith's trial. In particular, Boatner was asked whether the fact that he saw Smith's picture in a newspaper article naming Smith as a suspect had tainted his identification. Boatner did not waiver, responding, 'I picked out the person I seen come in that house that held a gun to my head and under my chin and the person that was there when all my friends died.'"
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