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Supreme Court Reverses Murder Conviction for Prosecutor Withholding Exculpatory Evidence

The United States Supreme Court reversed the murder conviction of a Louisiana man and granted him a new trial, finding that the the prosecutor had withheld evidence that could have supported his defense at trial that could have cast doubt on the credibility of prosecution witnesses. This case, Weary v. Cain, is notable because the SJC expanded upon the principle concerning violations of a defendant’s due process rights when the prosecution withholds material evidence.

Under the rule pursuant to Brady v. Maryland, the suppression by the prosecutor of evidence favorable to an accused upon request violates due process where the evidence is material either to guilt or to punishment, irrespective of the good faith or bad faith of the prosecution. In Weary v. Cain, the SJC held that the defendant does not need to establish that “more likely than not” that he would have been acquitted if the withheld evidence had been admitted. Rather, the defendant claiming a “Brady violation” need only show that the evidence is sufficient to “undermine the confidence” in the verdict.

In this case, the victim had been murdered in 1998.  Two years later, a prisoner, Sam Scott, contacted law enforcement and implicated the defendant, Michael Wearry, in the murder. Scott initially told the police that he had been friends with the victim and, on the night of the murder, the victim had gone to look for him at his work.  Unable to find him, he claimed the victim ran into Wearry and four other people. Scott claimed that Wearry and his friends confessed to shooting and driving over the victim, killing him.

Scott subsequently gave the police 4 additional statements, each statement differing in substantial ways. By the time Scott testified at Wearry’s trial, Scott’s account had changed dramatically since his initial story – telling the jury that he had bee playing dice with Wearry and four others when the victim drove by them; that Wearry decided to rob the victim; he and another person stopped his car, shoved him into the trunk; and eventually killed him by running him over.

In his defense, Wearry offered an alibi defense at trial, claiming that he had been at a wedding 40 miles away. His girlfriend, her sister and aunt corroborated Wearry’s alibi. The state called the bride from that wedding to testify, who claimed that the reception had ended by 8:30-9:00, leaving Wearry with enough time to get to the scene of the crime and commit the murder.  He was eventually convicted of the murder by the jury…

After his conviction, the defense discovered that the prosecution had withheld certain material evidence, including police records that would have shown that Scott’s fellow inmates would have cast doubt on his credibility.  It was also discovered that the prosecution failed to turn over medical evidence of person that Scott claimed assisted Wearry in the murder.  Those medical records would have shown that this person had undergone major knee surgery nine days prior to the murder and would have called into question his physical fitness and ability to assist Wearry.

Compounding Wearry’s issue, his trial attorney later admitted that he failed to conduct any independent investigation into his client’s innocence, relying almost exclusively on the evidence gathered by the state.  Despite his calling witnesses concerning the alibi defense, he admitted to not putting any effort into speaking with or locating independent witnesses from the dozens that had attended the wedding that was the basis of his alibi defense.

Because of these issues, the Supreme Judicial Court held that Wearry’s due process rights and his Sixth Amendment Right to the effective assistance of counsel were violated.  It is not necessary that, when claiming a due process violation, that the defendant demonstrate whether the prosecution withheld evidence bad faith. He need only show that the undisclosed evidence was material either to guilt or punishment.  Whether evidence is material depends on whether there is “any reasonable likelihood” it could have “affected the judgment of the jury.” To prevail then on his due process violation claim, the defendant needed only demonstrate that the evidence was material to a degree so as to “undermine confidence” in the verdict.

In this case, the withheld evidence could have called Scott’s veracity or credibility into question. He gave many inconsistent stories. The withheld medical records could have further undermined Scott’s credibility.  For these reasons, Wearry’s conviction was overturned and he was granted a new trial.

Boston Criminal Lawyer Lefteris K. Travayiakis has experience in defending persons accused of major crimes, including murder, and also challenging a defendant’s conviction on appeal.  He may be contacted at bostoncriminallawyer.com, lefteris@travayiakis.com or at 617-325-9500.