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March 7 — A Louisiana death row inmate will get a new trial because the state didn't turn over evidence that undermined the credibility of its star witnesses, a divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled March 7 in a per curiam decision.
The 6-2 vote and summary disposition that wasn't fully briefed or argued not only spares Michael Wearry from having to spend more time on Louisiana's death row for a 1998 murder, it also reduces the eight-member court's workload in the wake of Justice Antonin Scalia's death.
But the dissent said that the court shouldn't cut corners to lessen its workload, particularly in a case where “the Brady issue is not open and shut.”
“There is room on our docket to give this case the careful consideration it deserves,” Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said in a dissent joined by Justice Clarence Thomas.
The state's case hinged largely on the testimony of a jailed man named Scott who contacted authorities and implicated Wearry in a murder that occurred two years earlier. His testimony was corroborated by another prisoner named Brown.
The jury, however, didn't hear several key bits of evidence that would have given it pause about the credibility of these witnesses, the court said. For one thing, “Scott changed his account of the crime over the course of four later statements, each of which differed from the others in material ways,” it observed.
The court also noted that prosecutors didn't reveal that an inmate overheard Scott saying he had it in for Wearry and that another inmate said that Scott had tried to persuade him to implicate Wearry.
Jurors also didn't hear evidence that a man who supposedly helped Wearry had undergone knee surgery just nine days before the murder and that it would have been difficult for him to run, bend or lift substantial weight, the court said.
Finally, although the prosecutor claimed in her opening statement that Brown hadn't asked for favorable treatment, he had twice tried to negotiate a deal in return for testifying against Wearry, the court observed.
There was no physical evidence linking Wearry to the crime, the court added.
The Louisiana courts' denial of Wearry's claim that his rights under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), were violated collides with settled constitutional principles, the court said.
“Beyond doubt, the newly revealed evidence suffices to undermine confidence in Wearry's conviction,” it added.
Even though the jury probably still could have voted to convict, the court said that it had no confidence that the jury would have done so if armed with this new evidence.
“The State's trial evidence resembles a house of cards, built on the jury crediting Scott's account rather than Wearry's alibi,” it said.
Alito disagreed with the summary reversal of the conviction, saying that the state should have been given an opportunity to refute the claim that the case against Wearry was so precarious.
“Questions that seem quite simple at first glance sometimes look very different after both sides are given a chance to make their case,” Alito wrote.
Edward Q. Cassidy, of Fredrikson & Byron P.A., Minneapolis, represented Wearry. Patricia Parker Amos, of the 21st Judicial District Attorney's Office, Amite, La., represented the state.
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