SCOTUS Relief Unlikely in 30-Year-Old Murder Case(1)

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By Jessica DaSilva

Few questions came up at the U.S. Supreme Court during oral argument over an infamous Washington-area murder case ( Turner v. United States, U.S., No. 15-1503 , argued 3/29/17 and Overton v. United States, U.S., No. 15-1504 , argued 3/29/17 ).

That likely means the court won’t grant relief, a law professor told Bloomberg BNA March 29.

Defendants claim prosecutors withheld evidence favorable to the defendants, and as a result their convictions should be set aside under Brady v. Maryland.

A witness at the crime scene identified a man with a violent criminal record who was convicted in 1992 for a similar murder of another middle-aged woman.

Charles S. Turner and Russell L. Overton argued that evidence would have allowed them to undermine the government’s case against them. Its theory that a large gang, rather than a small group, killed and sodomized Catherin Fuller, a middle-aged mother of eight.

Arguments took on an unusually fact-intensive focus in a court where justices typically engage in broader legal analysis.

That’s because the case is complex, involving a huge record covering a six-week trial for ten defendants, said Bennett Gershman, a law professor at The Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University, New York, who focuses on prosecutorial and judicial ethics.

“It’s going to require the court to go through an intricate, complicated factual record to even be able to meaningfully weigh the issues under Brady,” Gershman said.

Flying in the Face of Evidence

Attorneys for both sides presented their arguments with little interruption from the justices.

Those questions that were asked reviewed different aspects of the evidence submitted at the original trial—such as asking which witnesses contradicted each other or what errors had the lower court made in reviewing the evidence.

Gershman said the line of questioning was understandable and seemed directed toward establishing whether the allegedly withheld evidence reasonably could have changed the outcome of the trial—the standard for Turner and Overton to succeed on their claims.

Because the government’s theory of the case was based on a gang murder, testimony that it was committed by one or two people probably wouldn’t have helped, he said.

It would have acted more like impeachment evidence that undermines credibility, just like other evidence used by the other defense attorneys did, Gershman said. That minimizes the cumulative effect if the jury didn’t buy the other impeachment evidence, he said.

“Given what everyone said about a gang attack, the court is asking, ‘How could evidence of an alternative perpetrator be even credible?’” he said. “That flies in the face of all the evidence in the case.”

To contact the reporter on this story: C. Reilly Larson in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: C. Reilly Larson at

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