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Supreme Court to Ponder Prosecutorial Misconduct

February 20, 2015
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4min read

What does justice look like for individuals who spend decades in jail for a law they didn’t commit?

In 1976, Earl Truvia, Jr., 17, and Gregory Bright, 20, were arrested and tried for the murder of 15 year old Eliot Porter.  The New Orleans prosecutors involved with that case failed to share some key evidence with defendants, including:

  • The sole witness testified under a false name to hide her history of mental illness and criminal history
  • That same witness was a heroin addict who had been admitted to a mental hospital to treat schizophrenia the day before identifying defendants in exchange for a reward payment
  • The existence of a police report naming two other suspects

The withholding of this evidence by the prosecution was problematic – under the U.S. Supreme Court case Brady v. Maryland, prosecutors must disclose any material evidence that could potentially exonerate a defendant.

In addition to the prosecution’s failure to disclose evidence, defense counsel failed to introduce evidence about the coroner’s report, which placed the time of the victim’s death hours before the witness testified that she saw defendants with the victim. Defense counsel also failed to visit the witness’s apartment, which would have shown that there was no line of vision from her apartment to the location where she said she saw the defendants with the victim.

The defendants were convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole.  They remained in jail for 27 ½ years until their convictions were overturned and they were released.

In the case to be considered by the Supreme Court, Mr. Truvia and Mr. Bright are seeking monetary damages against the prosecutor’s office. Because individual prosecutors have immunity from this type of lawsuit, Mr. Truvia and Mr. Bright have sought relief based on the argument that the prosecutor’s office systematically failed to train its staff on Bradyrules.

Their case most recently made its way to the 5th Circuit.  That court dismissed the case because it found a lack of evidence of any systematic failure to train.  This is notwithstanding the fact that at least 13 people have been exonerated in the past twenty five years after it was found that the prosecutors in New Orleans failed to produce evidence at trial.

This is not the first time prosecutors in New Orleans have appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court in a case related to prosecutorial misconduct.  In 2011, the Court vacated a $14 million jury award in a case involving a man who spent 14 years on death row before it came to light that the prosecutors had failed to turn over evidence of someone else’s blood at the crime scene.  The Court’s reasoning was that the plaintiff had not shown a pattern of Brady violations.  Mr. Truvia and Mr. Bright will face the same hurdle when their petition is considered by the Court.

The question of how a plaintiff proves a pattern of prosecutorial misconduct is one that directly affects core tenants of our criminal justice system – the idea that all individuals are presumed innocent until proven guilty and that all defendants deserve a fair trial.  If the accused’s Constitutional rights are not being protected, and prosecutors are repeatedly violating the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brady, the very foundation of the system is flawed.

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