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Media Alerts - Sixth Circuit: nondisclosure of State's payment to key witness violates due process
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March 20, 2017
  Sixth Circuit: nondisclosure of State's payment to key witness violates due process
Headline: Prosecution's nondisclosure of witness's payment for testimony violates defendant's due-process rights under Brady v. Maryland.

Case: Thomas v. Westbrooks

Area of law: Criminal procedure, constitutional law, due process.

Issue presented: Whether the state violated the defendant's right to due process under Brady v. Maryland when the prosecutor suppressed evidence that the key witness had received payment for her testimony.

Brief summary: The state's key witness in Thomas's murder trial received $750 for her testimony. The prosecution failed to disclose this evidence during trial and failed to correct on the record the witness's false testimony that she did not receive any payment. Thomas argued that this violated his due-process rights under Brady, which prohibits the state from suppressing material evidence that is favorable to the defendant. The Sixth Circuit found that the evidence of the witness's payment was material under the circumstances. It reasoned that a large payment made in direct connection to the case in which the witness is testifying presents a pecuniary bias that is likely to weigh heavily on a juror's assessment of the witness's credibility. The Court also emphasized that the focus with a Brady claim is not on whether the other evidence at trial was sufficient to convict the defendant, but whether suppression of this evidence made the defendant's trial fundamentally unfair.

Extended summary: In 1997, Thomas shot and robbed an armored-truck driver. A federal court convicted Thomas of interfering with interstate commerce and other firearm-related crimes, sentencing him to life in prison. After the truck driver died of his injuries, the State of Tennessee charged him with felony murder. A jury convicted him and sentenced him to death.

The key witness at both trials was Angela Jackson, who was Thomas's girlfriend at the time of the crime. Before the murder trial began, the FBI paid Jackson $750 as a reward for her testimony. Her receipt of this payment was noted in the files that federal authorities gave state prosecutors to use in their case.

The state prosecutor did not inform Thomas of this payment. On the contrary, the prosecutor continuously emphasized during the murder trial that Jackson was testifying because she believed it was the "'the right thing to do.'" The prosecutor also failed to correct Jackson on the record when she twice perjured herself by testifying that she didn't receive any money in exchange for her testimony.

On appeal, Thomas claimed that the state's nondisclosure of Jackson's payments violated his due-process rights established in the U.S. Supreme Court case Brady v. Maryland. Brady held that a prosecutor's suppression of evidence violates a defendant's due-process rights if (1) the evidence is favorable to the defendant, (2) the evidence is either intentionally or accidentally suppressed by the state, and (3) the suppression results in prejudice to the defendant. The state conceded that the first two Brady elements were met, leaving only the question of prejudice.

Under the Brady test, prejudice results when the suppressed evidence is material, even if that evidence is only relevant for impeachment purposes. Evidence is material when, considering all relevant evidence, the suppressed evidence deprived the defendant of a fair trial with a trustworthy verdict. A defendant's burden for meeting this standard is between a mere possibility and a preponderance of the evidence that disclosure of the suppressed evidence would have resulted in an acquittal.

The Sixth Circuit held that evidence of Jackson's payment was material under the circumstances. The Court reasoned that this case was factually similar to a previous Sixth Circuit case, Robinson v. Mills, where the prosecution's key witness had previously received $70 for being a confidential informant - all, however, for cases that had nothing to do with the defendant's. Nonetheless, the Court held that the prosecution's failure to disclose these facts warranted relief under Brady because it revealed a potential bias relevant to the witness's credibility and truthfulness. Applying Robinson, the Sixth Circuit found that the $750 payment to witness Angela Jackson for testifying against Thomas was certainly material if the $70 payment in Robinson for past informant services was material.

The state argued that there was sufficient evidence to convict Thomas without Jackson's testimony, making anything related to her testimony, like the fact that she received payment, immaterial. But the Court reiterated that a Brady claim is meant to protect a defendant's right to a fair trial; therefore, the focus is not on whether the defendant could have been convicted if the suppressed evidence had been presented, but whether the suppression of the evidence made the defendant's trial fundamentally unfair. Furthermore, the Court rejected the state's factual argument that Jackson's testimony did not weigh heavily on the jury's decision to convict Thomas. Jackson provided credible testimony on key aspects of the prosecution's case, such as placing Thomas at the crime scene and linking him to the driver of the getaway car used after the robbery.

The state also argued that the defense had been able to effectively impeach Jackson on her inconsistent statements and her own past bad acts, and therefore evidence of her payment was immaterial. The Court, however, stressed the difference between impeachment based on pecuniary bias and impeachment based on other grounds. The Court found that jurors are more likely to distrust witnesses whose testimony is linked to a financial gain.

Since the Court found that Thomas was entitled to relief on his Brady claim, the Court found it unnecessary to determine whether the prosecutor engaged in prosecutorial misconduct for failing to correct Jackson's perjurious testimony that she never received a payment in exchange for her participation.

Panel: Circuit Judges Gilbert S. Merritt, Eugene E. Siler, Jr., and Bernice B. Donald.

Date of issued opinion: February 24, 2017

Docket number: 15-5399

Decided: Reversed and remanded.

Counsel: Robert L. Hutton, GLANKLER BROWN, PLLC, Memphis, Tennessee, for Appellant. Michael M. Stahl, OFFICE OF THE TENNESSEE ATTORNEY GENERAL, Nashville, Tennessee, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Robert L. Hutton, GLANKLER BROWN, PLLC, Memphis, Tennessee, Kevin Wallace, Elizabeth Cate, Mollie Richardson, WINSTON & STRAWN LLP, New York, New York, for Appellant. Michael M. Stahl, OFFICE OF THE TENNESSEE ATTORNEY GENERAL, Nashville, Tennessee, for Appellee. Mark A. Fulks, BAKER DONELSON BEARMAN CALDWELL & BERKOWTIZ, P.C., Johnson City, Tennessee, for Amicus Curiae.

Author of opinion: Circuit Judge Gilbert S. Merritt.

Case alert author: Andrea Randall, Western Michigan University Cooley Law School

Case alert circuit supervisor: Professor Mark Cooney

Link to the case: http://www.opn.ca6.uscourts.go...ns.pdf/17a0045p-06.pdf

Edited: 03/23/2017 at 12:42 PM by Mark Cooney

    Posted By: Mark Cooney @ 03/20/2017 11:52 AM     6th Circuit  

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