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Withholding information favorable to the defendant and their criminal defense lawyer was seemingly a long-standing practice in one New Orleans prosecutor’s office. The Supreme Court handed down a decision last week overturning a murder conviction because the prosecution never handed over prior statements of the government’s one eyewitness.
Juan Smith was convicted of first-degree murder based on the eyewitness testimony of one single person. There was no other evidence at all connecting Smith to the crime. In an unethical attempt to secure the conviction, prosecutors held back prior statements made by this witness indicating that he could not see who committed the crime as he did not have a good view and there was poor lighting. This kind of information was very valuable to the defense for its potential to discredit the eyewitness, and the foundational case Brady v. Maryland requires that any favorable information be turned over by prosecutors.
Eyewitness testimony has been largely discredited in recent years amid studies showing that memories can be molded to believe just about anything. A once uncertain eyewitness can tentatively identify a suspect and, after affirmation by observing law enforcement that they “picked the right guy,” can then become one-hundred percent certain. Another method of faulty identification can come from the tendency to choose the best option out of a certain selection. Even if the true suspect is not present, the witness will choose the one who most closely fits their memory’s image.
This was not the first time the New Orleans prosecutors under former District Attorney Harry Connick Sr. had a decision overturned; a similar conviction was likewise overturned by the justices only a year prior.
Smith’s case highlights many of the prevalent flaws with the American criminal justice system: (1) Prosecutorial misconduct DOES happen; (2) there is little to no disciplinary action or systematic checks available to remedy it; and (3) single eyewitness accounts, faulty and error-prone as they may be, are still being used to convict people of serious crimes when no other evidence exists. While the inaccuracy of the human memory is understood among legal professionals, prosecutors still persist in pressing charges and consuming state resources when not a single shred of other evidence ties a person to a crime. This is how innocent people end up in prison. Unfortunately, it occurs more often than we think.
For now, the Supreme-9 have slapped the hands of these prosecutors once again, and perhaps set the bar for other prosecutors around the nation. Their wise message: Prosecute in good faith, or we’ll utter the phrase that prosecutors loathe…”REVERSED.”
Rosana Escobar Brown wrote this blog post. She is a law clerk at Price Benowitz LLP and in her final year of law school. Price Benowitz LLP is a DC law firm founded by criminal defense lawyer David Benowitz.