Turner v. United States,
582 U.S. ___ (2017)

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Justia Opinion Summary

Defendants were indicted for the kidnapping, robbery, and murder of Catherine Fuller. The prosecution argued that Fuller was attacked by a large group, producing the testimony of two men who confessed to participating in a group attack and cooperated in return for leniency. Other witnesses corroborated aspects of their testimony. The prosecution played a videotape of defendant Yarborough’s statement to detectives, describing how he was part of a large group that carried out the attack. None of the defendants rebutted the witnesses’ claims that Fuller was killed in a group attack. Long after their convictions became final, seven defendants discovered that the government had withheld evidence: the identity of a man seen running into the alley after the murder and stopping near the garage where Fuller’s body had already been found; statements of a passerby who claimed to hear groans coming from a closed garage; and evidence tending to impeach three witnesses. The Supreme Court affirmed the D.C. courts in rejecting their Brady claims, finding the withheld evidence not material. Evidence is material when there is a reasonable probability that, had the evidence been disclosed, the result of the proceeding would have been different, given the context of the entire record. An argument that, had defendants known about the withheld evidence, they could have raised an alternative theory, that a single perpetrator (or two) had attacked Fuller “is too little, too weak, or too distant from the main evidentiary points to meet Brady’s standards.” The undisclosed impeachment evidence was largely cumulative of impeachment evidence already in use at trial.

Prior History
  • Syllabus  | 
  • Opinion (Stephen G. Breyer)  | 
  • Dissent (Elena Kagan)

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued.The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader.See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321 .

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

Syllabus

TURNER et al. v. UNITED STATES

certiorari to the district of columbia court of appeals

No. 15–1503. Argued March 29, 2017—Decided June 22, 2017[1]

Petitioners—Timothy Catlett, Russell Overton, Levy Rouse, Kelvin Smith, Charles and Christopher Turner, and Clifton Yarborough—and several others were indicted for the kidnaping, robbery, and murder of Catherine Fuller. At trial, the Government advanced the theory that Fuller was attacked by a large group of individuals. Its evidentiary centerpiece consisted of the testimony of Calvin Alston and Harry Bennett, who confessed to participating in a group attack and cooperated with the Government in return for leniency. Several other Government witnesses corroborated aspects of Alston’s and Bennett’s testimony. Melvin Montgomery testified that he was in a park among a group of people, heard someone say they were “going to get that one,” saw petitioner Overton pointing to Fuller, and saw several persons, including some petitioners, cross the street in her direction. Maurice Thomas testified that he saw the attack, identified some petitioners as participants, and later overheard petitioner Catlett say that they “had to kill her.” Carrie Eleby and Linda Jacobs testified that they heard screams coming from an alley where a “gang of boys” was beating someone near a garage, approached the group, and saw some petitioners participating in the attack. Finally, the Government played a videotape of petitioner Yarborough’s statement to detectives, describing how he was part of a large group that carried out the attack. None of the defendants rebutted the prosecution witnesses’ claims that Fuller was killed in a group attack. The seven petitioners were convicted.

Long after their convictions became final, petitioners discovered that the Government had withheld evidence from the defense at the time of trial. In postconviction proceedings, they argued that seven specific pieces of withheld evidence were both favorable to the defense and material to their guilt under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U. S. 83 . This evidence included the identity of a man seen running into the alley after the murder and stopping near the garage where Fuller’s body had already been found; the statement of a passerby who claimed to hear groans coming from a closed garage; and evidence tending to impeach witnesses Eleby, Jacobs, and Thomas. The D. C. Superior Court rejected petitioners’ Brady claims, finding that the withheld evidence was not material. The D. C. Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: The withheld evidence is not material under Brady. Pp. 9–14.

(a) The Government does not contest petitioners’ claim that the withheld evidence was “favorable to the defense.” Petitioners and the Government, however, do contest the materiality of the undisclosed Brady information. Such “evidence is ‘material’ . . . when there is a reasonable probability that, had the evidence been disclosed, the result of the proceeding would have been different.” Cone v. Bell, 556 U. S. 449 –470. “A ‘reasonable probability’ of a different result” is one in which the suppressed evidence “ ‘undermines confidence in the outcome of the trial.’ ” Kyles v. Whitley, 514 U. S. 419 . To make that determination, this Court “evaluate[s]” the withheld evidence “in the context of the entire record.” United States v. Agurs, 427 U. S. 97 . Pp. 9–11.

(b) Petitioners’ main argument is that, had they known about the withheld evidence, they could have challenged the Government’s basic group attack theory by raising an alternative theory, namely, that a single perpetrator (or two at most) had attacked Fuller. Considering the withheld evidence “in the context of the entire record,” Agurs, supra, at 112, that evidence is too little, too weak, or too distant from the main evidentiary points to meet Brady’s standards.

A group attack was the very cornerstone of the Government’s case, and virtually every witness to the crime agreed that Fuller was killed by a large group of perpetrators. It is not reasonably probable that the withheld evidence could have led to a different result at trial. Petitioners’ problem is that their current alternative theory would have had to persuade the jury that both Alston and Bennett falsely confessed to being active participants in a group attack that never occurred; that Yarborough falsely implicated himself in that group attack and yet gave a highly similar account of how it occurred; that Thomas, an otherwise disinterested witness, wholly fabricated his story; that both Eleby and Jacobs likewise testified to witnessing a group attack that did not occur; and that Montgomery in fact did not see petitioners and others, as a group, identify Fuller as a target and leave together to rob her.

As for the undisclosed impeachment evidence, the record shows that it was largely cumulative of impeachment evidence petitioners already had and used at trial. This is not to suggest that impeachment evidence is immaterial with respect to a witness who has already been impeached with other evidence, see Wearry v. Cain, 577 U. S. ___, ___–___. But 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, see Smith v. Cain, 565 U. S. 73 –76. Pp. 11–14.

116 A. 3d 894, affirmed.

Breyer, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Kennedy, Thomas, Alito, and Sotomayor, JJ., joined. Kagan, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Ginsburg, J., joined. Gorsuch, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the cases.

Notes

1 Together with No. 15–1504, Overton v. United States, also on certiorari to the same court.

Primary Holding

Withheld evidence is material under Brady only if there is a reasonable probability that the result of the proceeding would have been different, considering the context of the entire record. If the evidence is too little, too weak, or too distant from the main evidentiary points, there is no violation.

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