In February, 2001, Mr. and Mrs. Hye of Glenpool, Oklahoma were murdered inside their home. Mrs. Hye died in the closet where she was bound and shot; Mr. Hye made it to hospital but died soon after.
Their adopted daughter, Cenessa Tackett, was also shot during the incident in the left shoulder. She testified at trial that her ex-boyfriend Michael Browning had come to her home with his friend Shane Pethel to kill Cenessa and her parents because she was pregnant with his baby and he did not want to pay child support.
The jury convicted Browning in four hours and sentenced him to death.
Browning has maintained both at trial and in post-conviction pleadings that he was framed by Tackett and Pethel. Evidence suggests that Pethel, who’s truck was found full of the Hye’s stolen possessions following the incident, knew Tackett better than she suggested during trial. Browning asserts that Tackett received an inheritance of more than a million dollars following her parents’ deaths and that she framed Browning because she was jealous of his new relationship with another woman.
Browning’s argument was underdeveloped at trial and the failures of his attorneys to better flesh out his defense forms the basis of his ineffective assistance of counsel claims in federal habeas. However, one piece of evidence that his attorneys had no power to put before the jury was the psychiatric records of Canessa Tackett.
In a strange turn of events, Tackett’s attorney faxed the records to the prosecution in Browning’s case before trial,. The state made the reports’ existence known to Browning’s attorneys; but when the defense asked for a copy of the records, Tackett’s attorney said they had been given to the prosecution in error and that they could not be disclosed because Tackett had not approved their release.
The trial court took the matter up in hearings on the defense’s motion to compel and ruled that the records would not be disclosed since they were bound by psychotherapist-patient privilege and contained no “material” exculpatory or impeachment evidence. (Learn about Brady material here.)
However, years later in a ruling on Mr. Browning’s habeas petition, the Northern District of Oklahoma found that the Oklahoma courts had erred (both the trial court and subsequent appellate courts) in finding Tackett’s records immaterial. The Court found that the evidence was indeed both favorable and material:The sealed mental health records reflect that Tackett, the prosecution’s key witness, suffered from severe mental illness which could affect her ability to recount events accurately and she was also prone to manipulate and blame others. The sealed mental health records also contain information that could support Browning’s theory that Tackett participated in the crimes with Pethel. The evidence is clearly both favorable impeachment and exculpatory evidence.
The district court’s contrary finding is reminiscent of the Louisiana case of Juan Smith, in which the U.S. Supreme Court found evidence to be clearly exculpatory and material after it had passed through six lower courts, including the trial court. You can read about the case on our New Orleans page.
In a ruling handed down on May 8, 2013, the Tenth U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s finding and threw out Browning’s conviction.
The failure of both the prosecution and the trial court to accurately assess whether the reports were Brady material in this case points to the need for clearer discovery guidelines. Follow our news on Texas’ discovery reform legislation which aims to achieve just this in Oklahoma’s neighboring state of Texas.