U.S. Supreme Court Summaries
The U.S. Supreme Court in June issued opinions dealing with juvenile life without parole, and Brady, but the impact of both is limited.
In Virginia v. LeBlanc, decided June 12, the Court, in the context of a federal habeas case, ruled that a Virginia court did not unreasonably apply clearly established federal law in holding that a “geriatric release program” satisfied Graham’s requirement that juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses be given a meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on maturity and rehabilitation.
The lower federal courts had held that the state court had unreasonably applied Graham in upholding the geriatric release program. But a unanimous Supreme Court reversed.
“In order for a state court’s decision to be an unreasonable application of this Court’s case law, the ruling must be ‘objectively unreasonable, not merely wrong; even clear error will not suffice,’” the Court said. “Graham did not decide that a geriatric release program like Virginia’s failed to satisfy the Eighth Amendment because that question was not presented,” the Court said. “[I]t was not objectively unreasonable for the state court to conclude that, because the geriatric release program employed normal parole factors, it satisfied” Graham.
The Court, however, emphasized the narrowness of its ruling, based on the standard of review in federal habeas corpus. The Court expressed “no view on the merits of the underlying Eighth Amendment claim.” “Perhaps the next logical step from Graham would be to hold that a geriatric release program does not satisfy the Eighth Amendment, but ‘perhaps not,’” the Court said. “The Court today holds only that the Virginia trial court’s ruling… was not objectively unreasonable in light of this Court’s current case law.”
Justice Ginsburg concurred, but emphasized that Virginia’s geriatric release program did not allow the state to deny release “for any reason whatsoever.” “[I]nstead, the board, when evaluating a juvenile offender for geriatric release, must consider the normal parole factors, including rehabilitation and maturity,” she said.
In Turner v. United States, decided June 22, the Court denied relief in a Brady case on grounds that the evidence which the Government failed to disclose was not “material” based on the very specific facts presented. But because the case announced no new law, the impact of the ruling is likely limited. Christopher Turner and six other petitioners were convicted of a murder in Washington, D.C. The Government’s theory at trial was that a large group of people had attacked and killed the victim.
None of the petitioners testified at trial, nor did any of them, through witnesses or other evidence, try to rebut the Government witnesses’ claim that the victim was killed in a “group attack.” Instead, each, in essence, sought to blame fellow co-defendants. After petitioners’ convictions became final, they discovered that the Government had withheld evidence at the time of trial. They sought postconviction relief.
The undisclosed evidence would have supported a defense theory that the victim was murdered by a different person. Among the evidence that was not disclosed was a police interview with a witness who saw a man leave the crime scene. That man was later convicted of another similar murder. Another undisclosed witness told police that she had seen yet a different man commit the murder. The Government did not disclose this witness because a prosecutor found her “totally incredible.”
Other undisclosed evidence would have impeached Government witnesses with inconsistent statements or drug use. The lower District of Columbia courts denied relief on grounds that the Brady violations were not “material.”
In a 6-2 opinion, the Supreme Court affirmed.
The Government conceded that the withheld evidence should have been disclosed under Brady because it was exculpatory or impeaching. The issue was solely whether the evidence was “material.”
“Evidence is material within the meaning of Brady when there is a reasonable probability that, had the evidence been disclosed, the result of the proceeding would have been different,” the Court said. “A ‘reasonable probability of a different result’ is one in which the suppressed evidence ‘undermines confidence in the outcome of the trial.’”
But the undisclosed evidence here – that a different person committed the murder by himself – “is inconsistent with petitioners’ guilt only if there was no group attack,” the Court said. “The [trial] witnesses may have differed on minor details, but virtually every witness to the crime itself agreed as to a main theme: that [the victim] was killed by a large group of perpetrators.”
“With respect to the undisclosed impeachment evidence, the record shows that it was largely cumulative of impeachment evidence petitioners already had and used at trial,” the Court said.
“We of course do not suggest that impeachment evidence is immaterial with respect to a witness who has already been impeached with other evidence,” the Court concluded. “We conclude only that in the context of this trial, with respect to these witnesses, the cumulative effect of the withheld evidence is insufficient to ‘undermine confidence’ in the jury’s verdict.”
Justice Kagan, joined by Justice Ginsburg, dissented. They said the undisclosed evidence would have changed the “whole tenor” of the trial since it would have allowed the defense to offer “jurors a way to view the crime in a different light.” “That could well have flipped one or more jurors – which is all Brady requires,” they said.