SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The 9th Circuit on Tuesday granted a retrial – “albeit ten years too late” – for a man convicted of pawning an allegedly stolen wrestling championship ring.
In what the panel’s opinion called a “seemingly trivial case” with “tragic results,” a Nevada jury found Stephen Comstock guilty of possession of stolen property – even though Randy Street, the ring’s owner, had “serious doubts” about whether the ring was actually stolen.
A judge sentenced Comstock to 10 to 25 years in prison.
Comstock petitioned his conviction before the 9th Circuit under Brady v. Maryland, which prohibits prosecutors from suppressing evidence favorable to a defendant. Circuit Judge John Owens wrote in the panel’s opinion that such petitions face an “immense challenge” but that “this is no routine case.”
Owens said that the case’s prosecution relied heavily on the fact that Street “cherished and safeguarded” his ring and therefore could not have possibly lost it outside its apartment, where Comstock could have found it.
Comstock admitted to having pawned the ring but not to having stolen it.
But as part of the sentencing process, Street submitted a victim- impact statement in which he “expressed grave concern about whether there had been any crime at all,” according to the 23-page opinion.
“To have a clear conscience in this matter, I have to bring up the possibility that I may have placed my ring on the ground while outside my apartment washing my motorcycle,” Street said in the statement.
When he discovered Street’s statement, Comstock moved – unsuccessfully – for a new trial.
The 9th Circuit panel on Tuesday reversed the federal judge’s denial of a new trial, saying that Street’s statement was indeed favorable to Comstock and was suppressed by the state’s prosecutor. Disclosure of the evidence would have “transformed” Street’s cross-examination and the trial as a whole, according to the panel.
“Instead of groping blindly at hypothetical laundry mishaps or bar bets gone wrong, counsel could have deployed Street’s specific recollection of an occasion when he removed his ring, placed it on the ground or an air conditioner outside, and did not recall putting it back on,” Owens wrote for the panel.
The judge also said that Street’s testimony was the “linchpin” of the state’s case, a case built largely on circumstantial evidence and inference.
“This is the rare criminal case where the entire prosecution rested on the shoulders of one man – Randy Street,” Owens wrote.
“And while Brady determinations often are difficult, this was not a close call – the key witness had reasonable doubts about whether a crime occurred, and the prosecution should have shared the recollections that formed the basis of those doubts with the defense,” he added.
The panel gave the convicting judge 90 days to order a retrial.
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