It was a good decision, that is, for Michael Wearry. The U.S. Supreme Court on March 7, 2016 reversed the Louisiana death row inmate’s conviction.
The high court found that prosecutors had engaged in misconduct in their handling of two jailhouse snitches whose woefully inconsistent and obviously fabricated testimony sent Wearry to death row. The court said its own exhaustive review of the state record forced it to conclude that the snitch testimony was so “dubious” and “suspect” as not to deserve any credit whatsoever.
Evidence at State Trial “House of Cards”
“Beyond a doubt, the newly discovered evidence suffices to undermine confidence in Wearry’s conviction,” the court’s 6-2 per curiam decision said. “The State’s trial evidence resembles a house of cards.”
Prosecutors Failed to Disclose Material Evidence in Death Penalty Case
After Wearry’s conviction and death sentence it came to light that prosecutors had “withheld relevant information.” Specifically, the high court found prosecutorial misconduct because the state did not disclose a police report that cast doubt on the testimony of one of the snitches and concealed other evidence showing that the second snitch testified against Wearry just to get a favorable deal.
SCOTUS Issues Unsigned Opinion, Without Briefs or Argument
We suspect that the court issued the unsigned, non-precedential per curiam ruling to send a message to Louisiana prosecutors who have a sordid history of securing death penalty verdicts through misconduct. The Death Penalty Information Center reports that Louisiana prosecutors have engaged in misconduct in at least 10 death penalty cases in which the defendants were later exonerated. The high court is simply fed up with rogue, dirty prosecutors in Louisiana who consistently live up to the state’s “banana republic” reputation.
While the Wearry decision is welcomed, it offers reason for concern and demonstrates why the next pick for the justice to replace the late Justice Scalia is so important. This was evidenced by the dissent in Wearry.
Thomas Now Follows Alito in Dissent
Justice Alito, joined by Justice Thomas, dissented.
Justice Alito expressed their views:
“There is no question in my mind that the prosecution should have disclosed this information, but whether the information was sufficient to warrant reversing petitioner’s conviction is another matter.”
Prosecutorial Misconduct Not Enough, …Really?
Put simply, Justice Alito conceded that state prosecutors engaged in misconduct by not disclosing the patently fabricated snitch testimony, but he was not convinced their misconduct alone was a sufficient basis for reversing the conviction.
The two justices in effect said it’s fine for a prosecutor to violate all legal and ethical rules in order to send a defendant to death row so long as there is just a smidgen of “reasonable” evidence that might indicate some level of guilt.
The two dissenters also lamented the fact that the six majority justices decided the case without written briefs or oral arguments.
They did so, we suspect, because the evidence of prosecutorial misconduct was so overwhelming that no written or oral arguments could have legitimized the misconduct. The jailhouse snitches lied. The prosecutors suborn this perjury. These are the cold hard facts. The state court record clearly disclosed as much. There was no need to waste either judicial time or resources allowing yet another Louisiana prosecutor try to justify his or her misconduct.
Here is the Alito/Thomas logic on this issue:
“For good reason, we generally do not decide cases without allowing the parties to file briefs and present argument. Questions that seem quite simple at first glance sometimes look very different after both sides are given a chance to make their case. Of course, this process means extra work for the Court. But it leads to better results, and it gives the losing side the satisfaction of knowing that at least its arguments have been fully heard. There is no justification for departing from our usual procedures in this case.”
Prosecutors Blatantly Engaged in Misconduct
There can be no “better results” than reversal of conviction in cases where prosecutors engage in blatant, knowing misconduct in order to send an innocent defendant to death row.
Conservative Republican senators want the Scalia replacement to adhere to the Alito/Thomas logic expressed in the Wearry decision—a logic that would have been vigorously supported by Scalia himself.
We hope these senators do not get their way to replace Scalia with a Scalia clone.