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High court splits on death row appeal where testimony was withheld

After he was given a death sentence for the murder of a guard during an attempted prison break, a man in Louisiana learned that a fellow inmate's confession made no mention of him.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson was joined in dissent Monday by her liberal colleagues as the Supreme Court shut the door on an alleged constitutional violation out of Louisiana. 

“In my view, the Louisiana Supreme Court misinterpreted and misapplied our Brady jurisprudence in a manner that contravenes settled law,” the Biden appointee wrote in a 4-page opinion joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. 

The case stems from an attempted prison break over two decades ago by six men detained at Louisiana State Penitentiary. One of the six, David Brown, maintains it was the other inmates who beat and stabbed Captain David Knapps to death as they tried to make their escape. He claims witness testimony proves his version of events, but the testimony in question was not turned over to Brown’s attorneys until after a jury had handed him a death sentence. Brown claims this is a violation of his rights under Brady v. Maryland, which requires prosecution to provide the defense with all potentially exonerating evidence. 

Jackson agreed and said the case merits review. 

“The central question before this Court is whether the prosecution violated Brown’s due process rights by failing to disclose this confession,” Jackson wrote. “Because the evidence was plainly ‘favorable’ and ‘material’ to Brown’s penalty phase, I would have granted certiorari and summarily reversed.” 

If Brown had used the testimony to boost his defense, Jackson said the evidence could have changed the jury’s ruling. 

Jackson specifically called out Louisiana courts for violations of 14th Amendment rights. 

“We have repeatedly reversed lower courts — and Louisiana courts, in particular — for similar refusals to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment’s mandate that favorable and material evidence in the government’s possession be disclosed to the defense before trial,” Jackson wrote. “This Court has decided not to grant Brown’s petition for certiorari, but that determination should in no way be construed as an endorsement of the lower court’s legal reasoning.” 

The attempted prison break occurred while Brown was serving a life sentence that he had received at age 20 for second-degree murder. The plan was for the inmates to walk out the front doors wearing uniforms that they would steal from corrections officers. 

Brown says Knapps fought back to keep his uniform, but that Knapps had sustained only a head injury when Brown dragged the officer into the bathroom and said he would not be hurt. Brown claims he left the bathroom to detain two other corrections officers when the inmates initiated a hostage situation, barricading themselves in the building. After Brown and the other inmates surrendered, Brown claimed to be shocked to find out that Knapps had died. 

All five surviving inmates involved in the escape were charged with first-degree murder. Seeking the death penalty, Louisiana theorized that Brown lied in his statement regarding Knapps’ death. According to the state, Brown held Knapps down while the other inmates beat him to death. Most of the state’s case was supported by witness testimony. 

Brown was found guilty of first-degree murder by the jury. His death sentence was reliant on his personal participation in Knapps’ murder, but Brown claims he did not directly participate. 

After the jury sentenced Brown to death, Louisiana disclosed a witness transcript taken prior to the trial. A close friend of one of the inmates involved in the escape described how the prisoners decided to kill Knapps, but the testimony contained no reference to Brown’s involvement. 

The disclosure led Brown’s attorneys to ask for a new trial under the court’s famous precedent in Brady. The trial judge listened to the witness's testimony but found that prosecutors did withhold evidence from the defense. The judge concluded that a jury could have come to a different decision on Brown’s sentence had they heard the evidence. 

Brown initially prevailed on appeal to Louisiana's First Circuit, but the Louisiana Supreme Court denied Brown relief in a 4-3 ruling. Brown asked the Supreme Court to review if another person’s confession that doesn’t mention the defendant should be considered evidence under Brady

Brown’s attorney said the court should have taken up the case because the state high court’s ruling adopted a new understanding of Brady

“This is another such case — one in which a bare majority of the Louisiana Supreme Court has not only allowed a death sentence to stand in contravention of Brady but also adopted a new understanding of that doctrine’s favorability and materiality concepts that conflicts with the law of other jurisdictions and has wide-ranging implications,” Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney from O’Melveny & Myers representing Brown, wrote in his petition. 

Louisiana claims Brown’s sentence was based on the fact that he was already serving a life sentence when the escape attempt occurred. Because the testimony does not change that argument, the state says, it should not change Brown’s sentence. 

“The State submits that this Court’s Brady jurisprudence is not contravened by the Louisiana Supreme Court majority’s findings that the withheld statement is neither favorable nor material to Petitioner in the context of the full record and that the undisclosed statement therefore did not undermine its confidence in the jury’s decision to impose the death penalty do not contravene this Court’s Brady jurisprudence,” Juliet Clark, an assistant district attorney in the Louisiana district attorney’s office, wrote in the state’s brief. “Therefore, further review is not warranted.” 

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Categories / Appeals, Criminal

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