The Rhode Island Supreme Court has affirmed a post-conviction court’s decision to grant Raymond Tempest a new trial due to the illegal suppression of favorable evidence in his case. Mr. Tempest had been found guilty back in 1992 for the 1982 murder of Doreen Picard. He was sentenced to 85 years in prison, but he has always insisted on his innocence. In the face of what a dissenting justice called “one of the most infamous crimes committed in this state during the last century,” the majority did not flinch. It applied the case-law to the facts and reached the conclusion that a new trial was the right outcome.
The lower court had granted Tempest a new trial on three grounds: two separate Brady violations and a due process claim based on the Woonsocket Police Department’s inappropriate witness-coaching efforts. On appeal, the state supreme court only addressed one of the Brady issues because in finding that particular claim meritorious, it held that a new trial would be required no matter how the court would have decided the other issues.
According to the supreme court, “[f]ollowing what even the state described as a ‘chao[tic],’ ‘disorder[ly],’ and ‘disast[rous]’ nine-year investigation by the Woonsocket Police Department, on June 5, 1991, a grand jury indicted Tempest for Picard’s murder.” There was a severe shortage of physical evidence implicating Tempest, which evidently contributed to the length of the police investigation. At trial, the four main prosecution witnesses testified that Tempest had confessed to them at various points in the years following the murder.
Donna Carrier, a girlfriend of one of Tempest’s buddies, John Guarino, was one of these witnesses. She and Guarino at one time had lived in the same apartment complex as Tempest—a critical fact. At trial, Carrier testified that she overheard Tempest confess to Guarino. “Prior to trial, Carrier had been adamant that, at the time of the murder, the Tempest family lived in the same apartment complex on Winter Street as she and Guarino.”
Without naming the prosecutor, the court sets out the evidence the State suppressed:
Seventeen days before trial, Carrier provided the state’s former prosecutor with two novel statements: (1) that Tempest’s brother, Gordon Tempest (Gordon)—who was a detective with the Woonsocket Police Department at the time of the murder—hid the murder weapon (a pipe) in a closet on the first floor at 409 Providence Street in an effort to conceal it so as to protect his brother; and (2) that, on the day of the murder, Tempest’s children were “excited” about getting a puppy. In response to receiving these statements from Carrier, the former prosecutor wrote in his notes: “more new info re: [Gordon Tempest] putting pipe in closet + dog for the kids—too late—don’t volunteer new info—will cause big problems.” Tempest argues that the former prosecutor deliberately failed to disclose this favorable evidence, and that such a deliberate nondisclosure automatically entitles him to a new trial.
Local media reports indicate that the prosecutor in question is named James Ryan.
Notably, Rhode Island law is more protective of criminal defendants’ rights than the federal Constitution. While the Supreme Court was still actively building and clarifying the Brady doctrine, the Rhode Island Supreme Court ruled in the 1970s that the degree of prosecutorial culpability for suppressing exculpatory evidence would influence the judicial determination of whether a new trial is warranted. As the Court previously explained, “When the failure to disclose is deliberate, this court will not concern itself with the degree of harm caused to the defendant by the prosecution’s misconduct; we shall simply grant the defendant a new trial.”
Given the note by Ryan found along with Carrier’s statements, the justices were persuaded that the State’s decision to suppress the evidence was deliberate. Although former prosecutor Ryan later disclosed—just before trial—that Carrier was mistaken in thinking that the Tempest family had lived in the same apartment complex as her at the time of the crime, he failed to disclose Carrier’s statements about Tempest’s brother and the kids being excited about getting a new puppy.
On appeal, the State argued that the statement about Tempest’s brother hiding the murder weapon was inculpatory rather than exculpatory. But, the Court found that regardless it could have been used to impeach Carrier, and impeachment evidence falls within the realm of evidence that prosecutors must disclose to criminal defendants. Moreover, the statement about the puppy would have been relevant to impeaching Carrier because it was not Tempest who received the puppy, but another friend named John Allard.
Although Rhode Island law relieves the defendant of the burden of proving that the exculpatory evidence was “material” where the prosecution deliberately suppressed that evidence, the Court here found that Tempest could have met that burden. For its misconduct, the State now has the burden of deciding whether to try the case again. And, for its misconduct, Mr. Tempest paid the price of serving some 23 years in prison under a blatantly unfair conviction.