Juniper v. Zook (Lawyers Weekly No. 001-199-17, 34 pp.) (James Wynn Jr., J.) 13-7; Nov. 16, 2017; USDC at Richmond, Va. (John Gibney Jr., J.) 4th Cir.
Holding: Where the state withheld evidence that called into question not only the time of the victims’ deaths, but also the identity of the perpetrator, the withheld evidence was material, and the district court abused its discretion when it refused to hold an evidentiary hearing on petitioner’s habeas petition.
Vacated in part and remanded.
Four victims were killed in an apartment. Three of the victims were shot; one was shot and stabbed.
Petitioner’s DNA and fingerprint were found on the knife used to stab one of the victims. Witnesses placed him at the murder scene, holding a pistol. The state never recovered the gun.
Despite petitioner’s discovery requests, the state never produced eyewitness testimony that called into question the time of the shootings and the identity of the perpetrator. After petitioner’s conviction, some of this evidence was revealed during the bribery prosecution of a police detective.
In response to defendant’s habeas petition, the district court ordered the state to produce evidence related to witnesses Wendy and Jason Roberts. The state produced three pages to investigative notes (two of which petitioner already had as a result of the bribery case), a photo array, and sworn affidavits from the prosecutor and a detective who participated in investigating the murders.
The district court denied petitioner’s motion for additional discovery and then denied his petition in its entirety without holding an evidentiary hearing.
The Robertses’ statements indicated that they heard gunshots between 1:00 and 2:30 p.m., well after the late morning time witnesses said petitioner had fled the scene; moreover, the Robertses identified an alternate perpetrator who bore no resemblance to petitioner. Furthermore, the photo that Wendy picked out of an array was not defendant’s. This evidence was exculpatory.
Further, evidence in the record points to suppression. For example, the prosecutor’s affidavit says he did not believe the material was subject to disclosure under Brady because the Robertses’ statements were factually inconsistent with the prosecution’s conclusion, based on other evidence, as to the timing of events.
That the prosecutor seems to have fundamentally misunderstood his obligation under Brady provides grounds to conclude that the prosecution suppressed the Roberts materials and potentially other exculpatory or impeaching evidence. And the detective’s subsequent conviction for accepting bribes and making false representations to courts enhances the plausibility of improper suppression.
The main issue before the court is whether the withheld evidence was material.
In making the materiality determination, the district court failed to construe facts in the light most favorable to petitioner. For example, the district court rejected the Robertses’ statements because a 911 caller reported hearing gunshots earlier than the Robertses reported hearing them at the victims’ apartment. However, the officers who responded to the earlier call surveyed the apartment complex, did not go to the victims’ apartment, spoke with the residents of the apartment below the victims, and were told they “did not hear any gun shots.” The officers therefore concluded the call to be a false report. Viewing these facts in the light most favorable to petitioner, the murders plausibly occurred at the time the Robertses saw an unidentified individual (who did not resemble petitioner) fleeing the victims’ apartment.
The district court also failed to properly account for the impeachment value of the withheld statements. The district court clearly failed to “subtract” from the weight of the evidence on the prosecution’s side the force and effect of the impeachment value of the withheld materials. For example, the district court relied on the first 911 caller’s report of hearing gunshots at the victims’ apartment an hour earlier as definitive evidence that the murders occurred before 1:00 p.m. However, that call was made by someone who did not personally hear the alleged gunshots but instead had received the information fourth-hand. Those who relayed the information to the caller were witnesses whose testimony was subject to impeachment by the Robertses’ statements.
The district court also improperly made credibility determinations based on the written record. In particular, the district court refused to credit Wendy’s statement that she saw a woman resembling victim Keshia Stephens alive between 12:30 and 12:45 p.m., and the Robertses’ and Kevin Waterman’s statements that they heard sounds resembling gunshots after 1:00 p.m.
The only fact on which the district court properly relied in concluding that the withheld Roberts evidence was not material is the knife handle and blade bearing petitioner’s DNA and thumbprint, respectively.
Although forensic evidence linked petitioner to the knife used to stab victim Keshia Stephens, it did not link petitioner to the gun used to kill Keshia and the other victims. The only forensic evidence related to the gun – an unidentified print on the ammunition box – did not point to petitioner. No forensic evidence directly linked petitioner to three of the victims. Although petitioner’s DNA was found on a cigarette butt at the threshold of the apartment, petitioner admittedly frequented the apartment.
New evidence suggesting an alternate perpetrator is classic Brady material. Courts have also found withheld evidence material when the evidence undermined the government’s theory as to when a petitioner committed a crime. In addition, the withheld evidence here would have raised opportunities to attack the thoroughness and even the good faith of the investigation. The withheld evidence was not cumulative of other evidence, and petitioner’s trial counsel could have used the investigative notes of the Robertses’ statements to pursue evidence of petitioner’s innocence that could have been used at trial.
In light of the foregoing, we do not believe the inculpatory value of the knife handle and blade is so great as to preclude the Roberts evidence, if found to be sufficiently credible during an evidentiary hearing, from putting the whole case in such a different light as to undermine confidence in the verdict. Accordingly, the district court abused its discretion in dismissing petitioner’s Brady claim premised on the withheld Roberts materials without holding an evidentiary hearing.
Vacated in part and remanded.