CBC's Fifth Estate Looks at Shaken Baby Syndrome

There was a great decision today from the US Supreme Court in Smith v Cain, Supreme Court No. 10-8145. Juan Smith was convicted of first-degree murder based on the testimony of a single eyewitness. During state postconviction relief proceedings, Smith obtained police files containing statements by the eyewitness contradicting his testimony. Smith argued that the prosecution’s failure to disclose those statements violated Brady v. Maryland. Brady held that due process bars a State from withholding evidence that is favorable to the defense and material to the defendant’s guilt or punishment. See id., at 87. The state trial court rejected Smith’s Brady claim, and the Louisiana Court of Appeal and Louisiana Supreme Court denied review.
A divided Court held that Brady requires that Smith’s conviction be reversed. The eyewitness’s statements were favorable to Smith and that those statements were not disclosed to him. Under Brady, evidence is material if there is a “reasonable probability that, had the evidence been disclosed, the result of the proceeding would have been different.” There, the eyewitness’s testimony was the only evidence linking Smith to the crime, and the eyewitness’s undisclosed statements contradicted his testimony. The eyewitness’s statements were plainly material, and the State’s failure to disclose those statements to the defense thus violated.
Smith is an unusual case because the Court agreed to hear it on certiorari to a state post-conviction relief decision. Normally, the high court refuses to hear such cases and encourages the litigants to use habeas corpus instead. Given the deference the high court has said such rulings are entitled to, I suspect that Smith would have lost if he followed the Court’s preferred route.