(CN) – The Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the murder convictions of seven men in a brutal 1984 killing in the District of Columbia, rejecting claims prosecutors withheld key evidence that would have cleared the men.
In their 6-2 ruling, the justices said the evidence the defendants said was withheld would not have made a difference in the outcome.
Catherine Fuller was a 48-year-old mother of six who left her home to purchase something she needed for dinner when she was kidnapped, robbed, sodomized and murdered on Oct. 1, 1984. Her body was found in a garage about a mile from the U.S. Capitol.
Of the 13 people ultimately charged with Fuller’s murder, three pleaded guilty, two were acquitted, and eight were convicted.
One of the eight had already died in jail when the men learned via an article in the Washington Post that the government had withheld evidence at their trial.
Led by Russell Overton and Christopher Turner, the group immediately made a bid for a new trial.
Though suppression of evidence is barred by the case Brady v. Maryland, the men struggled during a series of postconviction proceedings to prove that there is a reasonable probability that they would have been acquitted had evidence suppression not occurred.
The evidence at issue involved information on two alternate perpetrators, James McMillan and James Blue; witness statements suggesting that Fuller was not attacked by a large group, as was believed at trial; and recanted testimony by other witnesses.
During oral arguments in March, the several justices, including Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Anthony Kennedy questioned several aspects of the convicts’ original trial. Kagan went so far as to call the defense’s case “a circular firing squad” that created the “worst of all possible worlds for the defendants.”
But on Thursday, Kagan and Ginsburg stood alone in dissent. The majority of justices set aside their reservations and agreed with Justice Department attorney Michael Dreeben who during oral arguments had said the withheld evidence would not have changed the jury’s eventual verdict.
Writing for the majority, Justice Stephen Breyer acknowledged that the government did not contest the petitioners’ claim that the withheld evidence was favorable to the defense. The issue, as far as the government was concerned, was the materiality of the undisclosed information.
“Consequently, the issue before us here is legally simple but factually complex,” Breyer said.
“With respect to the undisclosed … evidence, the record shows that it was largely cumulative of impeachment evidence petitioners already had and used at trial,” he wrote. “We of course do not suggest that impeachment evidence is immaterial with respect to a witness who has already been impeached with other evidence. … We conclude only that in the context of this trial, with respect to these witnesses, the cumulative effect of the
withheld evidence is insufficient to ‘undermine confidence’ in the jury’s verdict.”
“On the basis of our review of the record, we agree with the lower courts that there is not a ‘reasonable probability’
that the withheld evidence would have changed the outcome of petitioners’ trial,” Breyer said.
In a dissenting opinion that Justice Ginsburg joined, Kagan said she parted ways with the majority in how it viewed the withheld evidence.
Kagan said she believes the government withheld three categories of evidence: information identifying a possible alternative perpetrator; witness statements suggesting one or two individuals and not a large group, carried out the crime; and “a raft of evidence discrediting its investigation and impeaching its witnesses.”
“Taken together, the materials would have recast the trial significantly—so much so as to ‘undermine[ confidence’
in the guilty verdicts reached in their absence,” she said.
Kagan continued: “The Government got the case it most wanted — the one in which the defendants, each in an
effort to save himself, formed something of a circular firing squad. And the Government avoided the case it most
feared — the one in which the defendants acted jointly to show that a man known to assault women like Fuller
committed her murder. The difference between the two cases lay in the Government’s files—evidence of obvious
relevance that prosecutors nonetheless chose to suppress. I think it could have mattered to the trial’s outcome.”
Justice Neil Gorsuch took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.