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Criminal Practice – Brady Claim Writ Grant Was Error

Nicolas v. Attorney General of the State of Maryland (Lawyers Weekly No. 001-082-16, 16 pp.) (Motz, J.) No. 15-6616, April 27, 2016; USDC at Baltimore, Md. (Bennett, J.) 4th Cir.

Holding: The state’s suppression of two witness statements that purportedly undermined petitioner’s theory that his two-year-old daughter was fatally shot in 1996 by an unknown assailant in a road rage incident, instead of by petitioner, did not so undermine the jury verdict that it was unreasonable for Maryland state courts to reject petitioner’s Brady claim; the 4th Circuit reverses a district court decision granting a writ of habeas corpus.

The statements at issue came from two witnesses who were guests at a nearby motel and purportedly saw a vehicle and heard a shot near the time petitioner said his daughter was shot by another motorist in a road rage incident. The state’s theory of prosecution depended on medical evidence of lividity showing the child had died earlier, based on the manner in which blood had settled on the child’s left side.

The federal district court granted the habeas writ on the Brady v. Maryland claim. The district court found that the state court had based its denial of relief on an unreasonable determination of the fact, explaining that evidence suggesting the fatal shot was fired around 9:45 p.m. would have contradicted the state’s theory that petitioner shot his daughter prior to attending the Pinocchio movie at 8:00 p.m., and supported petitioner’s version of events. According to the district court, there was “absolutely no basis for the state courts to conclude that the suppressed statements conflicted with” petitioner’s theory of the case. The district court found the state court unreasonably applied Brady in holding that the statements were not material. It vacated the conviction and remanded for a new trial.

Under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1), we must presume that the state court’s factual findings are correct unless the petitioner rebuts those facts by clear and convincing evidence. We review the district court decision de novo, deciding through the deferential lens of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 whether petitioner’s Brady claim meets the requirement to warrant a new trial. The parties agree the state did not disclose the witness statements to petitioner until years after trial.

Petitioner argues the state court ignored the exculpatory value of the statements – in corroborating his own testimony as to the time of death – and their impeachment value – in contradicting the medical examiner’s time of death estimate.

We recognize that, had the witnesses testified, they might have done so in a way that helped petitioner. They could have said they heard a gunshot around 9:45 p.m. on the night of the murder. They could have testified that the sound of the gunshot came from Bowley’s Lane, where police found the toddler’s body. Of course, the state could have cross-examined them with their original statements, in which both witnesses associated the noise with a car in a cul-de-sac that was not on Bowley’s Lane. Moreover, the defense would have to deal with one witness’s original statement that the noise was not a gunshot at all, but rather a car backfiring. And critically, the defense would still be confronted with the medical examiner’s testimony that in his expert opinion the child had been dead for about two hours at the time the witnesses heard a noise.

Considering these inconclusive suppressed statements with the record as a whole, reasonable jurists could well conclude that the statements did not put the whole case in such a different light as to undermine confidence in the verdict. It was not unreasonable for the state courts to conclude that, when considered with all the other evidence offered at trial, the statements would have made no difference to the verdict.

Judgment granting the petition is reversed.

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