United States v. Agurs
Annotate this Case
427 U.S. 97 (1976)
U.S. Supreme Court
United States v. Agurs, 427 U.S. 97 (1976)
United States v. Agurs
Argued April 28, 1976
Decided June 24, 1976
427 U.S. 97
Respondent was convicted of second-degree murder for killing one Sewell with a knife during a fight. Evidence at the trial disclosed, inter alia, that Sewell, just before the killing, had been carrying two knives, including the one with which respondent stabbed him, that he had been repeatedly stabbed, but that respondent herself was uninjured. Subsequently, respondent's counsel moved for a new trial, asserting that he had discovered that Sewell had a prior criminal record (including guilty pleas to charges of assault and carrying a deadly weapon, apparently a knife) that would have tended to support the argument that respondent acted in self-defense, and that the prosecutor had failed to disclose this information to the defense. The District Court denied the motion on the ground that the evidence of Sewell's criminal record was not material, because it shed no light on his character that was not already apparent from the uncontradicted evidence, particularly the fact that he had been carrying two knives, the court stressing the inconsistency between the self-defense claim and the fact that Sewell had been stabbed repeatedly while respondent was unscathed. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the evidence of Sewell's criminal record was material and that its nondisclosure required a new trial because the jury might have returned a different verdict had the evidence been received.
Held: The prosecutor's failure to tender Sewell's criminal record to the defense did not deprive respondent of a fair trial as guaranteed by the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment, where it appears that the record was not requested by defense counsel and gave rise to no inference of perjury, that the trial judge remained convinced of respondent's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt after considering the criminal record in the context of the entire record, and that the judge's first-hand appraisal of the entire record was thorough and entirely reasonable. Mooney v. Holohan, 294 U. S. 103; Brady v. Maryland, 373 U. S. 83, distinguished. Pp. 427 U. S. 103-114.
(a) A prosecutor does not violate the constitutional duty of
disclosure unless his omission is sufficiently significant to result in the denial of the defendant's right to a fair trial. Pp. 427 U. S. 107-109.
(b) Whether or not procedural rules authorizing discovery of everything that might influence a jury might be desirable, the Constitution does not demand such broad discovery; and the mere possibility that an item of undisclosed information might have aided the defense, or might have affected the outcome of the trial, does not establish "materiality" in the constitutional sense. Pp. 427 U. S. 109-110.
(c) Nor is the prosecutor's constitutional duty of disclosure measured by his moral culpability or willfulness; if the suppression of evidence results in constitutional error, it is because of the character of the evidence, not the character of the prosecutor. P. 427 U. S. 110.
(d) The proper standard of materiality of undisclosed evidence, and the standard applied by the trial judge in this case, is that, if the omitted evidence creates a reasonable doubt of guilt that did not otherwise exist, constitutional error has been committed. Pp. 427 U. S. 112-114.
167 U.S.App.D.C. 28, 510 F.2d 1249, reversed.
STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and STEWART, WHITE, BLACKMUN, POWELL, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, J., joined, post, p. 427 U. S. 114.