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Monday, May 27, 2024 | Back issues
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High Court Paves Path to Retrial From Death Row

WASHINGTON (CN) - Two justices dissented Monday as the Supreme Court summarily reversed a 14-year-old murder conviction without briefing or argument.

Michael Wearry had sought such relief while on death row in Louisiana for the April 4, 1998, murder of Eric Walber.

The lead opinion on Wearry from the Supreme Court today says it was an imprisoned informant who implicated Wearry in the crime, but changed his story several times before taking the stand at Wearry's trial.

Indeed the informant, Sam Scott, initially said Walber had been shot to death, and he said the body was dumped on a different street.

The opinion says Louisiana's star witness in the Wearry trial, Eric Brown, was also incarcerated at the time. As with Scott, this man also made a prior inconsistent statement to police.

Louisiana had no physical evidence against Wearry, and the defense rested solely on an alibi.

Though Wearry exhausted his attempts at postconviction relief, the Supreme Court found today that prosecutors failed to disclose material evidence in violation of Wearry's due-process rights.

"First, previously undisclosed police records showed that two of Scott's fellow inmates had made statements that cast doubt on Scott's credibility," the unsigned opinion states.

Further diminishing Scott's credibility was the fact that one of the men who supposedly helped Wearry had undergone knee surgery just nine days before the murder.

"An expert witness ... testified at the state collateral-review hearing that [this man's] surgically repaired knee could not have withstood running, bending, or lifting substantial weight," actions necessary to the theory of the crime, according to the ruling.

Meanwhile the assertion that Brown did not gain anything by testifying unraveled when it became apparent that Brown had twice sought a deal to reduce his sentence in exchange for testifying.

The high court said Wearry deserves a new trial because this evidence runs afoul of the 1963 case Brady v. Maryland, but the two dissenting justices said their colleagues missed a crucial step.

"There is no question in my mind that the prosecution should have disclosed this information, but whether the information was sufficient to warrant reversing petitioner's conviction is another matter," Justices Samuel Alito wrote, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas. "The failure to turn over exculpatory information violates due process only 'if there is a reasonable probability that, had the evidence been disclosed to the defense, the result of the proceeding would have been different.'"

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