The US Supreme Court on Thursday rejected challenges to the convictions of seven men in a decades-old murder case in Washington, DC.
The justices, in a 6-2 decision, left in place findings by lower court judges that the defendants failed to prove that evidence withheld by prosecutors at the time of the trial would have changed the outcome of the case. Defense lawyers argued that the findings misapplied the law, and legal advocacy groups said they set the bar too high for defendants in these situations.
The case centered on the Oct. 1, 1984, murder of Catherine Fuller. Fuller had gone out to get groceries, and was later found dead in an alley a few blocks from her home in northeast Washington. Prosecutors presented evidence at trial that a group of young men and women forced Fuller into an alley, where she was beaten and sodomized with an object that police never recovered.
The convictions of seven of the surviving defendants were before the Supreme Court. The defendants — six of whom are still in prison — began challenging their convictions in 2010, after learning that prosecutors had failed to turn over several pieces of evidence — including information that placed other individuals in the alley around the time that Fuller was killed, and that defense lawyers argued would have bolstered an alternative perpetrator theory.
Under a Supreme Court decision from 1963, Brady v. Maryland, prosecutors are obligated to turn over favorable information to the defense. In deciding whether a violation of that obligation warrants a new trial or some other remedy, courts consider several factors, including whether the evidence is favorable to the defense and whether it is "material" — significant enough that there is a "reasonable probability" it could have changed the outcome of the trial.
The government did not dispute that the evidence withheld in the Fuller case was favorable, but argued that it was not material, given the strength of the other evidence presented at trial that supported the theory of a group attack. A DC Superior Court judge and the DC Court of Appeals, the city's highest local court, sided with prosecutors.
Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the majority on Thursday, said the lower court judges were correct to uphold the convictions. For the new evidence to have changed the outcome of the trial, he wrote, the jury would have had to disregard multiple witnesses — included two people who pleaded guilty — who described a group attack.
"Considering the withheld evidence 'in the context of the entire record,' however ... we conclude that it is too little, too weak, or too distant from the main evidentiary points to meet Brady’s standards," Breyer wrote. "The witnesses may have differed on minor details, but virtually every witness to the crime itself agreed as to a main theme: that Fuller was killed by a large group of perpetrators," he wrote later.
Breyer was joined in the majority by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito Jr., and Sonia Sotomayor. Justice Neil Gorsuch, who hadn't been confirmed by the time the case was argued on March 29, did not participate.
Justice Elena Kagan wrote a dissenting opinion, which Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined. Kagan wrote that the majority hadn't given enough weight to how different the trial would have been if the defendants jointly pursued an alternative perpetrator theory, as opposed to individually denying involvement and pointing the finger at their codefendants.
"With the undisclosed evidence, the whole tenor of the trial would have changed. Rather than relying on a 'not me, maybe them' defense ... all the defendants would have relentlessly impeached the Government’s (thoroughly impeachable) witnesses and offered the jurors a way to view the crime in a different light. In my view, that could well have flipped one or more jurors—which is all Brady requires," Kagan wrote.
The lawyer who argued for the defendants, John Williams, declined to comment. A spokesperson for the US Department of Justice did not immediately return a request for comment on Thursday afternoon.