Read Burt Rose’s Digests on Two New Supreme Court Cases

posted January 16, 2012

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in the case of BARION PERRY, PETITIONER v. NEW HAMPSHIRE, No. 10–8974 (January 11, 2012). JUSTICE GINSBURG delivered the opinion of the Court. The vote was 8-1.

The Nashua, New Hampshire Police Department received a call reporting that an African-American male was trying to break into cars parked in the lot of the caller’s apart­ment building. A witness described the man and then pointed to her kitchen window and said the man she saw breaking into the car was standing in the parking lot, next to a police officer. Petitioner Perry’s arrest followed this identification.

Perry was charged in New Hampshire state court with one count of theft by unauthorized taking and one count of criminal mischief. Before trial, he moved to suppress this identification on the ground that admitting it at trial would violate due process because the witness saw what amounted to a one person show-up in a parking lot, which all but guaranteed that she would identify Perry as the culprit. However, the police had not arranged the identification opportunity.

The Court granted certiorari to resolve a division of opinion on the question whether the Due Process Clause requires a trial judge to conduct a preliminary assessment of the reliability of an eyewitness identification made under suggestive circum­stances which were not arranged by the police.

Justice Ginsburg wrote that the Court has not extended pretrial screening for reliability to cases in which the suggestive circumstances were not arranged by law enforcement officers. This Petitioner requested that the Court do so because of the risk that mistaken identification will yield a miscarriage of justice. The Court’s decisions, however, turn on the presence of state action and aim to deter police from rigging identification proce­dures, for example, at a lineup, show up, or photograph array. There is no case in which the Court has required pretrial screening absent a police ­arranged identification procedure. Therefore, the Court held that when no improper law enforcement activity is involved, it suffices to test reliability through the rights and opportunities generally designed for that pur­pose, notably, the presence of counsel at post indictment lineups, vigorous cross-examination, protective rules of evidence, and jury instructions on both the fallibility of eyewitness identification and the requirement that guilt be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Thus the fallibility of eyewitness evidence does not, without the taint of improper state conduct, warrant a due process rule requiring a trial court to screen such evidence for reliability before allowing the jury to assess its creditworthiness.

Ed. Note: This case has a very lengthy and informative discussion of the law regarding the Supreme Court’s identification jurisprudence.

The United States Supreme Court has issued an Opinion in the matter of JUAN SMITH, PETITIONER v. BURL CAIN, WARDEN, No. 10–8145, 2012 WL 43512 (January 10, 2012).

Petitioner Juan Smith was convicted of first-degree murder based on the testimony of a single eyewitness. At Smith’s trial that witness, Larry Boatner, testified that he was socializing at a friend’s house when Smith and two other gunmen entered the home, demanded money and drugs, and shortly thereafter began shooting, resulting in the death of five of Boatner’s friends. In court Boatner identified Smith as the first gunman to come through the door. He claimed that he had been face to face with Smith during the initial moments of the robbery. No other witnesses and no physical evidence implicated Smith in the crime.

The jury convicted Smith of five counts of first-degree murder. During state postconviction relief proceedings, Smith obtained police files containing statements by the eyewitness contradicting his testimony, including those of the lead investigator, Detective Ronquillo whose notes contain statements by Boatner that conflict with his testimony identifying Smith as a perpetrator. The notes from the night of the murder state that Boatner “could not ... supply a description of the perpetrators other than they were black males.” Ronquillo also made a handwritten account of a conversation he had with Boatner five days after the crime, in which Boatner said he “could not ID anyone because he couldn’t see faces” and “would not know them if he saw them.” Ronquillo’s typewritten report of that conversation states that Boatner told Ronquillo he “could not identify any of the perpetrators of the murder.”

Smith argued that the prosecution’s failure to disclose those statements violated Brady v. Maryland, 373 U. S. 83, which held that due process bars a State from withholding evidence that is favorable to the defense and material to the defendant’s guilt or punishment. The state trial court rejected Smith’s Brady claim, and the Louisiana Court of Appeal and Louisiana Supreme Court denied review. The Supreme Court granted a writ of certiorari.

Chief Justice ROBERTS delivered the opinion of the Court, in which SCALIA, KENNEDY, GINSBURG, BREYER, ALITO, SOTOMAYOR, and KAGAN, JJ, joined. The court held that Brady requires that Smith’s conviction be reversed. The State does not dispute that the eyewitness’s statements were favorable to Smith and that those statements were not disclosed to Smith. Under Brady, evidence is material if there is a “reasonable probability that, had the evidence been disclosed, the result of the proceeding would have been different.” Cone v. Bell, 556 U. S. 449, 469–470. A “reasonable probability” means that the likelihood of a different result is great enough to “undermine confidence in the outcome of the trial.” Kyles v. Whitley, 514 U. S. 419, 434. Evidence impeaching an eyewitness’s testimony may not be material if the State’s other evidence is strong enough to sustain confidence in the verdict. United States v. Agurs, 427 U. S. 97, 112–113, and n. 21. Here, however, the eyewitness’s testimony was the only evidence linking Smith to the crime, and the eyewitness’s undisclosed statements contradicted his testimony. The eyewitness’s statements were plainly material, and the State’s failure to disclose those statements to the defense thus violated Brady.

Therefore, the judgment of the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court of Louisiana was reversed. JUSTICE THOMAS dissented.