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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Supreme Court takes another look at New Orleans DA’s repeated Brady violations

Today the Supreme Court hears argument in the case of Smith v. Cain, yet another case in which the Orleans Parish District Attorneys’ Office committed egregious Brady violations by failing to disclose exculpatory and impeachment evidence to the defense.

This case follows closely on the Court’s controversial, 5-4 decision in Connick v. Thompson, delivered in March of this year. In Thompson, a narrow majority of the Court exonerated Harry Connick, the former Orleans Parish District Attorney, of liability for failing to train prosecutors who worked in his office regarding their obligation to disclose exculpatory evidence to defendants. The Court reversed a jury’s $14 million damages verdict for Thompson, whose murder conviction was overturned after 14 years on death row when withheld evidence was discovered by a defense investigator a month before his scheduled execution. The Court concluded that the D.A. did not have notice of the need for additional Brady training, distinguishing four other Orleans Parish convictions that were reversed in the 10 years prior to Thompson’s trial because they represented a different “sort” of Brady violation. This conclusion was particularly stunning because the Court had previously admonished Connick’s office in the 1995 case of Kyles v. Whitley for its Brady violations, instructing it to “err on the side of disclosure in order to avoid Brady violations.” Even Connick’s successor, Eddie Jack Jordan, Jr., stated upon assuming office in 2003 that “the former administration had a policy of keeping as much information as possible from the defense attorney.”

Smith v. Cain presents yet another shocking fact pattern, in which multiple pieces of exculpatory evidence were withheld by Connick’s office in a man’s trial on five murder charges. As the petition for cert pointed out, since 1981, there have been seven cases in which Louisiana death-row inmates have been exonerated, four of the seven were prosecuted in Orleans Parish, and all four involved “serious Brady violations.” Additionally, the Assistant District Attorney who prosecuted Smith had been sanctioned by the Louisiana Supreme Court for Brady violations in an earlier murder case.

The Supreme Court has an opportunity in this case to rectify its mistakes in Thompson. But if the Court finds for respondent, it will further erode the due process rights of criminal defendants as established nearly fifty years ago in Brady v. Maryland.

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