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Opinion recap: Blunt memo to the DA


Using brevity as a blunt instrument, the Supreme Court spent very little effort Tuesday in ordering the New Orleans district attorney’s office to provide a new trial in a murder case because prosecutors — using a tactic several times challenged before the Justices — had failed to hand over evidence that could have helped in defending a murder suspect.  In a spare four-page opinion, less than two pages of which were legal reasoning, the Court nullified the conviction of Juan Smith of New Orleans for an alleged role in the murder of five people in 1995.

Ironically, that murder occurred in the same year in which the Supreme Court began a prolonged effort of monitoring whether the New Orleans prosecutors were fulfilling their constitutional duty (under the Supreme Court’s 1963 decision in Brady v. Maryland) to share with defense lawyers all of the evidence they had which might help the accused.  While most of those rulings had gone against the prosecutors, a highly controversial one — the decision last March in Connick v. Thompson — had overturned a $14 million jury verdict in the case of a man who had been wrongly convicted of armed robbery, and had spent 18 years in prison, 14 of which were on death row.

The Justices, in fact, had granted review of Juan Smith’s case last June, even as they were putting together the 5-4 decision in Connick v. Thompson.   In some sense, the grant had the appearance of a new attempt to impose some firmer obligations on the New Orleans prosecutors to obey the Brady mandate.   The case thus had been watched closely to see whether, in fact, that kind of message would go out to that office.   It did, in what looked very much like a brusque rebuke.

The fact that the Court’s lead opinion — only Justice Clarence Thomas dissented — was written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., added to its authority and raised its visibility.  While the opinion virtually brushed off the prosecutors’ defense of Smith’s conviction, Thomas (the author of the majority opinion last Term in the Thompson case) used almost five times as much space (19 pages) as Roberts had, seeking to demolish Smith’s challenge.  The dissenting opinion actually focused more on claims by Smith’s lawyers than on what the Chief Justice’s opinion had said.

The Court’s main opinion focused entirely on one of Smith’s challenges: the New Orleans prosecutors’ refusal to hand over to Smith’s lawyers some notes that a New Orleans detective, the lead investigator in the case, had made about statements made to him by Larry Boatner — the only witness at Smith’s trial for murder that linked Smith to the crime.   Those notes, the Chief Justice wrote, conflict with statements that Boatner had made on the witness stand identifying Smith as the shooter.    At one point in the notes, the detective said that Boatner could not identify any of the perpetrators of the murder.

Briefly recalling the evidence-sharing obligation that the Brady decision had created, the Chief Justice’s opinion said the sole issue before the Court was whether Boatner’s undisclosed statements were a significant factor (“material to”) the conviction of Smith.   Running quickly over that question and the Boatner statements, the opinion concluded that those statements were “plainly material.”   In a brief rebuttal to Thomas’s dissent, the Chief Justice said that, while there were reasons why the jury might have discounted what Boatner had said if it had heard that evidence, the prosecution had not shown that the jury would have done so.

While most of the Thomas dissent was an exhaustive review of the details of the evidence against Smith, the Justice did imply that the Court had not fulfilled its review obligations. The Court, he said, had declined to “consider all of the facts” and had made flawed assumptions about the evidence it did consider.

Cases: Smith v. Cain

Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Opinion recap: Blunt memo to the DA, SCOTUSblog (Jan. 10, 2012, 4:10 PM),