WASHINGTON (AP) – The Supreme Court on Tuesday overturned a death row inmate’s conviction of killing five people in the justices’ latest slap at the conduct of prosecutors in the New Orleans district attorney’s office.
The high court voted 8-1 to order a new trial Tuesday for Juan Smith, who was convicted of five murders at a 1995 party. The only witness to identify Smith, Larry Boatner, gave inconsistent statements about whether he could recognize or identify Smith as one of the killers.
Prosecutors under former New Orleans district attorney Harry Connick never gave Smith’s lawyers those statements or other statements that could have been favorable to the defense. Prosecutors are required to do this under Supreme Court precedent.
“Boatner’s undisclosed statements alone suffice to undermine confidence in Smith’s conviction,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the court’s opinion.
New Orleans District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro said Tuesday they will retry Smith. “Tomorrow morning we will file a motion in this quintuple murder case to set it for trial within the next 60 days,” Cannizzaro said in a statement.
Justice Clarence Thomas was the only dissenter. He said that the Boatner statements were not enough to believe that the jury would have found Smith not guilty.
“The question presented here is not whether a prudent prosecutor should have disclosed the information that Smith identified,” Thomas said in his dissent. “Rather, the question is whether the cumulative effect of the disclosed and undisclosed evidence in Smith’s case `puts the whole case in such a different light as to undermine confidence in the verdict.'”
This is the second time in two terms that the Supreme Court has dealt with violations in the New Orleans prosecutor’s office of so-called Brady rights, named after the Supreme Court’s Brady v. Maryland case, which says prosecutors violate a defendant’s constitutional rights by not turning over evidence that could prove a person’s innocence. The high court earlier this year overturned a $14 million judgment given to a former death row inmate who was convicted of murder after the same New Orleans office withheld evidence in his trial. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in a rare oral dissent, called the prosecutors’ actions “gross” and “deliberately indifferent.”
Smith was convicted in eight 1995 killings. His Supreme Court appeal deals with a quintuple murder known in New Orleans as the Roman Street massacre, where armed intruders killed four people at a party. A fifth person died later, and Boatner escaped death by pretending to be unconscious.
Boatner gave differing statements about whether he could identify the shooters, but eventually identified Smith at his murder trial. Boatner’s earlier statements, however, were not shared with Smith’s lawyers.
The convictions in the Roman Street murder case were used against Smith at his next trial, a triple murder in which the ex-wife and 3-year-old child of New Orleans Saints defensive back Bennie Thompson were fatally shot, along with the ex-wife’s fiancee. Conviction in that case landed Smith on death row. His appeal in that case is on hold pending the outcome of the Roman Street case.
The case is Smith v. Cain, 10-8145.
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