(CN) – The Supreme Court’s decision Friday not to hear the case of a South Carolina man sentenced to life in prison for sexually abusing a minor drew the ire of liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who said his claim of withheld evidence is worthy of review.
A jailhouse informant named Aaron Kinloch testified during trial that Shannon McGee admitted to sexually abusing his stepdaughter. He said McGee, who was ultimately convicted in 2006 and sentenced to life without parole, confessed to the crime while the two men were both in prison.
After the trial ended, however, a prosecutor turned over a letter from Kinloch that was not previously disclosed to the defense.
Kinloch’s letter read, “I’m willing to help, if you are cause I do need your help. . . . P.S. If Need Be I WILL Testify!” (Emphasis in original.)
In his pro se appeal to the Fourth Circuit, which was rejected, McGee argued the letter reveals that Kinloch volunteered his testimony in exchange for the state’s “help” with his own pending charges.
The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday ruled against McGee’s motion for review based on his claims of an unfair trial, prompting an eight-page dissent from Justice Sotomayor.
“This case provides an illustration of what can be lost when [certificate of appealability] review becomes hasty,” Sotomayor wrote.
The justice of 10 years said that if the case were to be reviewed, a finding that McGee’s constitutional rights clearly were violated would not necessarily mean that he is innocent of the serious crimes he was convicted of and that McGee could be reconvicted – but only after a “fairer” proceeding.
“Kinloch’s letter evinces a particularized motive to lie, one distinct from and potentially more probative than any generalized doubts about Kinloch’s credibility that McGee was able to sow without it,” Sotomayor wrote.
Sotomayor, who was appointed by former President Barack Obama in 2009, said the trial court’s reasoning used to determine the letter would not have impacted the case’s outcome was flawed, given the Supreme Court has previously found a witness’ attempt to strike a deal before testifying can be significant.
“Withholding Kinloch’s letter could be a classic violation of the prosecutor’s constitutional duty to disclose material evidence favorable to the defense,” she wrote, adding the South Carolina trial court “said unequivocally that the letter should have been turned over.”
Sotomayor noted that federal courts handle thousands of life-changing habeas corpus petitions each year, but only a small number of them yield relief.
“And any given filing – though it may feel routine to the judge who plucks it from the top of a large stack – could be the petitioner’s last, best shot at relief from an unconstitutionally imposed sentence,” she wrote. “Sifting through the haystack of often uncounseled filings is an unglamorous but vitally important task.”