The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has ordered a trial court to take a closer look at the murder conviction of Julius Jerome Murphy. Texas was preparing to execute Mr. Murphy in November of 2015 when his lawyers obtained a stay of execution based on the discovery of exculpatory evidence that the prosecutors had withheld from the defense throughout the trial and appeals process. The immediate news emerging this week focuses on Judge Alcala’s fascinating partial-dissent, which explains her view that the trial court should not only look into the Brady allegations but also evaluate the defendant’s claim that the death penalty itself violates the Eighth Amendment based on the nation’s evolving standards of decency. While that important opinion deserves attention, the Court’s order itself underscores the legitimacy of questions that extend beyond the issue of Mr. Murphy’s death sentence; indeed, those questions fundamentally challenge his conviction.
One of Mr. Murphy’s attorneys summarized well the Brady evidence the trial court must now examine:
Mr. Murphy’s conviction and death sentence were procured through prosecutorial misconduct. Jurors considered evidence from two key witnesses while the prosecution unlawfully concealed the fact that those witnesses were pressured into testifying with threats of prosecution and promised leniency if they testified . . . . And one of the witnesses has now identified Mr. Murphy’s co-defendant as the true shooter.
As the defense’s application for post-conviction relief explains, the State’s two most important witnesses were Javarrow Young and Christina Davis. Aside from a statement made by Murphy—an intoxicated defendant with serious intellectual deficits (evidenced by his 71 IQ score)—the testimony of these two witnesses was all that tied Mr. Murphy to the crime. Yet, the defense was never notified that police threatened Young with a murder charge if he did not assist them in Murphy’s prosecution. And, the defense was never notified that police threatened Davis with conspiracy to commit murder unless she did the same. In the end, the State dismissed all charges against Davis. Murphy ended up on death row, and his co-defendant Chris Solomon ultimately received a life sentence.
Under Brady and Giglio, prosecutors have a well-established duty to disclose promises of leniency and threats of prosecution made to witnesses. Yet, the Bowie County prosecutors ignored that duty in Mr. Murphy’s case. The jury only heard that the prosecutors indicated they may take Mr. Young’s baby out of his custody if he did not cooperate with them. Never did jurors learn that Young actually believed he would face murder charges of his own if he failed to testify to the prosecutors’ satisfaction. Never did the jurors learn that Davis—the only witness who put a gun in Murphy’s hand near the time of the crime—was testifying in fear that she may face conspiracy charges herself if she did not produce testimony the prosecution was looking for. Given the facts produced in the application, the only real question for the trial court will be whether the impeachment evidence the State suppressed could reasonably have affected the outcome of the case. Given how much the prosecution relied on Young and Davis to implicate the defendant, it will be difficult for the State to persuade anyone that their testimony was not material.
While Open File focuses primarily on issues of prosecutorial wrongdoing, it is worth noting that Murphy’s defense team has raised another claim for relief which the trial court must explore: that Javarrow Young testified falsely at trial, and that this false testimony violates Mr. Murphy’s due process rights. According to an affidavit signed by Young, he did not tell the jury the entire truth because he did not testify that Murphy’s co-defendant, Chris Solomon, pulled the trigger. This essential detail is a game-changer. Under Texas caselaw, it does not matter whether prosecutors knew that Young testified untruthfully; what matters is simply whether that untruthful testimony contributed to the jury’s verdict. At this time, it is unclear whether prosecutors knew or should have known that Young’s testimony was false. If they knew or could have easily discovered the falsity, their actions violated both Brady and Napue.
The prosecutors who put Mr. Murphy on the row deserve the scrutiny the case will bring to their actions. Al Smith, the lead prosecutor at trial, has been implicated in misconduct in earlier cases. One couple he persuaded a jury to convict of murdering their daughter—Debbie Tucker Loveless and John Harvey Miller—was eventually exonerated. Smith had failed to disclose critical documents to defense attorneys, including an autopsy report and emergency room photos. Experts who evaluated this exculpatory evidence determined that the couple’s consistent claim that 4-year-old April Tucker was mauled by dogs was the only reasonable interpretation of what happened. Rather than acknowledge his mistake, Smith blamed the trial court for any problems with the conviction. Moreover, he continues to argue that Loveless and Miller should be re-tried for murder.
While Smith committed misconduct in the prosecution of Loveless and Miller while he worked in Hopkins County, other prosecutors in Bowie County had their own problems with abiding by Brady. Most prominently, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the death sentence imposed on Delma Banks because the State withheld crucial impeachment evidence similar to the evidence now at issue in Mr. Murphy’s case. As the Court wrote:
Despite [its promise to turn over what was it was legally required to disclose], the State withheld evidence that would have allowed Banks to discredit two essential prosecution witnesses. The State did not disclose that one of those witnesses was a paid police informant, nor did it disclose a pretrial transcript revealing that the other witness’ trial testimony had been intensively coached by prosecutors and law enforcement officers.
Perhaps, like their neighboring counterparts in Louisiana, the prosecutors in Texas have struggled to take lessons from the U.S. Supreme Court to heart. The remand in Murphy gives the trial court a chance to set the State’s agents on the right path and hold them accountable for long-running misconduct. Misconduct that almost certainly requires Mr. Murphy be granted a new sentencing phase, if not a whole new trial altogether. It is fitting that in a case in which an appellate court judge has called on the judiciary to evaluate the constitutionality and viability of the death penalty, Brady issues lurk, an embedded part of the broken system.