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April 3, 2023

Three Justices dissent from denial of cert in Louisiana capital case based on Brady issue

The Supreme Court issued this morning another order list with no new grants of certiorari and lots of cert denials.  One of those cert denials, in the Louisiana capital case of Brown v. Louisiana, generated a short dissent by Justice Jackson, which was joined by Justices Sotomayor and Kagan. Here are excerpts from the dissent:

The central question before this Court is whether the prosecution violated Brown’s due process rights by failing to disclose this confession [by Edge, a codefendant].  Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963).  Because the evidence was plainly “favorable” and “material” to Brown’s penalty phase, id., at 87, I would have granted certiorari and summarily reversed....

The Louisiana Supreme Court nevertheless held that Edge’s confession was not favorable to Brown because it did not specify who actually killed the victim, nor did it expressly state that Brown was “not present or not involved.” 347 So. 3d, at 836.  The requirement that the withheld evidence must speak to or rule out the defendant’s participation in order for it to be favorable is wholly foreign to our case law....

We have repeatedly reversed lower courts — and Louisiana courts, in particular — for similar refusals to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment’s mandate that favorable and material evidence in the government’s possession be disclosed to the defense before trial. See, e.g., Kyles, 514 U.S., at 422, 450–453; Smith, 565 U.S., at 76–77; Wearry, 577 U.S., at 392–394, 396.  This Court has decided not to grant Brown’s petition for certiorari, but that determination should in no way be construed as an endorsement of the lower court’s legal reasoning.  In my view, the Louisiana Supreme Court misinterpreted and misapplied our Brady jurisprudence in a manner that contravenes settled law.

April 3, 2023 at 09:51 AM | Permalink


I am not sure that this evidence is clearly material. While I know that evidentiary rules are a little more relaxed in the penalty phase, I also know that there is a big disagreement among courts about what qualifies as Chambers evidence. In my state, a statement from a codefendant in a multi-person offense is rarely viewed as Chambers evidence because our courts tend to view the part of the statement which is an admission against interest (I did it) as separate from the part that is exculpatory of the codefendant (John wasn't part of the plan).

Posted by: tmm | Apr 3, 2023 10:36:08 AM

Is that the standard? It has to be "clearly material?"

Edge’s confession was also material to the penalty phase
of Brown’s trial. The fact that Edge confessed without naming Brown or suggesting that he had participated in the
murder supplied independent evidence corroborating

Brown’s argument that he was not present during the murder and did not intend to kill the victim. Because Louisiana
law requires the jury to consider whether the defendant
was a “relatively minor” participant in the offense, as well
as “[a]ny other relevant mitigating circumstance,” La. Code
Crim. Proc. Ann., Arts. 905.3 and 905.5, Brown could have
used Edge’s confession to bolster his mitigation case. And
had Brown’s jury been presented with the confession, there
is a reasonable probability that at least one juror might
have viewed Brown’s culpability in a different light. See
Cone v. Bell, 556 U. S. 449, 475 (2009) (penalty phase materiality turns on whether, had the evidence not been suppressed, there was a reasonable probability that at least
one juror might have voted to “imprison [the defendant] for
life rather than sentence him to death”); see also Wearry,
577 U. S., at 392 (to be material, the suppressed evidence
need only be “sufficient to undermine confidence in the verdict” (internal quotation marks omitted)).

Seems material.

Posted by: whatever | Apr 3, 2023 11:30:31 AM

Whatever, you are assuming that it would have been admissible in the penalty phase. If admissible, it would corroborate the defendant's argument. But if it is not admissible, then it is not material. My point was that the Louisiana courts could have determined that the codefendant's confession was not admissible and, if it's not admissible, then it is also not material.

The Justice's terminology is "plainly material." That terminology reflects that this case is on appeal. At the trial court, the test is whether it is material. But to reverse the trial court, the appellate court has to find that the trial court erred with due deference to the rulings of the trial court. If the trial court's conclusions are merely debatable, that is normally not error. I am not seeing a significant difference between plainly material and clearly material. Other than that they are slightly different standards of review on appeal with plain error being an even higher standard than clear error.

Posted by: tmm | Apr 3, 2023 2:41:06 PM

It doesn't have to be admissible to be material. It just has to lead to admissible evidence that could support an alternative theory or add reasonable doubt.

Posted by: Da Man | Apr 3, 2023 3:33:37 PM

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