In 1995, a group of men burst into a New Orleans home in search of money and drugs. They ordered those inside to lie down and then opened fire, killing five innocent people. One man, Larry Boatner, survived the violence and identified Juan Smith as one of the assailants.
Boatner’s testimony was the only evidence presented at trial, and it proved persuasive enough to convince a jury. Juan Smith was convicted of murder.
There was, however, a problem. The Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office decided to hide relevant information from both Smith’s lawyers and the jury: mere hours after the slayings, Boatner told police he could only describe the gunmen as black men, and five days later, Boatner said he never saw the intruders’ faces.
Smith’s conviction was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed the conviction yesterday in an 8-1 ruling. The court majority found that the relevant evidence obviously needed to be shared with the defendant’s attorney as part of the discovery process. The question before the court was whether the disclosure of the evidence would have affected the outcome of the trial, and eight of the nine justices endorsed common sense and said it would.
As Adam Liptak reported, Clarence Thomas disagreed.
Justice Thomas’s dissent, at 19 pages, was almost five times as long as the majority opinion. “The question presented here is not whether a prudent prosecutor should have disclosed the information that Smith identifies,” Justice Thomas wrote.
Rather, he wrote, the question was whether Mr. Smith had not shown a reasonable probability that the jury would have reached a different conclusion had it known of the undisclosed statements. Justice Thomas said a careful review of the balance of the evidence demonstrated that nothing would have changed.
Has Thomas never heard of “reasonable doubt”? Prosecutors had no fingerprints, no weapon, no DNA, and no physical evidence of any kind. They had one witness, who said he never saw the faces of the murderers.
A Supreme Court justice believes a jury wouldn’t have cared about these details at all?
How did this guy end up on the bench?