Our long-running fascination with Brady violations in Louisiana—well-documented in many, many of our posts over the years—is not only based on our website’s genesis (the U.S. Supreme Court’s remarkably discouraging opinion about prosecutorial accountability in Connick v. Thompson) but also the seemingly endless supply of Brady violations that slowly yet surely surface one at a time. Despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s repeated efforts to guide Louisiana prosecutors, the fire of misconduct continues to burn. This week, two cases in particularly grab attention. One, the federal Fifth Circuit opinion in Floyd v. Vannoy, shows how far a familiar prosecutorial foe is willing to go to save ill-won convictions. The other, Williams v. Louisiana, exemplifies the problem with the prosecutorial bar in Louisiana, and presents the U.S. Supreme Court with an opportunity to enforce Brady in a case with a particularly vulnerable defendant who—in addition to being an intellectually-disabled juvenile at the time of the crime—appears to be innocent.
On April 6, the Fifth Circuit upheld a lower court’s ruling which found that John Floyd had been wrongfully convicted of murder. While the ruling ultimately decided an “actual innocence” claim—a rarely successful avenue for relief—the “gateway” issue was the State’s suppression of exculpatory evidence. Tried in Orleans Parish in the early 1980’s, it is perhaps no surprise that Mr. Floyd was the victim of prosecutorial misconduct. After all, Harry Connick, the District Attorney in New Orleans for decades, presided over an office that had little to no regard for the Brady rule.
In Mr. Floyd’s case, the police failed to disclose to the defense (and the prosecution as well) critical fingerprint evidence indicating that the defendant’s prints were not found on glasses at either of the two murder crime scenes to which law enforcement sought to link him. (Legally speaking, prosecutors are on the hook for all exculpatory evidence in the State’s possession, even if the police actually hold the relevant documents.) Indeed, the presence of someone else’s prints bolstered the defense’s theory that another individual committed the murders. The only substantial evidence of Floyd’s guilt that the State had was a confession he gave to police—admittedly strong evidence in the typical case. However, Floyd’s lawyers presented persuasive evidence that his confession was unreliable: the interrogating detective gave misleading testimony at trial; the defendant has a very low IQ and was susceptible to coercion; and, the detective had likely beaten other suspects in criminal cases just as Floyd claimed he had been abused during this interrogation.
It has been over 37 years since Williams Hines and Rodney Robinson were murdered in New Orleans, and despite credible evidence that the Orleans Parish DA prosecuted the wrong man for those crimes, the office continues to defend its actions. The Fifth Circuit opinion indicates that one of the prosecutors on the appeal is Donna Andrieu, who also appeared in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Smith v. Cain. Her efforts then—and the office’s outlandish arguments about its Brady obligations in that case—were famously ridiculed. The America Bar Association Journal summarized the media scrutiny:
According to the National Law Journal . . . justices took the prosecutor’s office “to the woodshed” for arguing there was no need to tell defense lawyers that a man who survived a mass murder in 1995 had previously told police he could not identify the perpetrators. . . . The New York Times began its story on the arguments this way: “Donna R. Andrieu, an assistant district attorney in New Orleans, had the unenviable task at the Supreme Court on Tuesday of defending her office’s conduct in withholding evidence from a criminal defendant. She made the least of it.” SCOTUSblog also described the prosecutor’s difficult time. “There may be many ways for a lawyer to realize that an argument before the Supreme Court is falling flat, but none can top this: a justice asking if the counsel had ever considered simply forfeiting the case,” SCOTUSblog said. “That is what happened on Tuesday to Donna R. Andrieu, an assistant district attorney in New Orleans, as her argument lay all about her, in shambles.”
In Floyd, the Fifth Circuit not so subtly cited the Supreme Court’s 8-1 majority opinion in Smith, specifically for the proposition that suppressed exculpatory evidence is much more likely to be material under Brady when the State’s case is weak.
At the moment, John Floyd is free. But, nothing will stop the State’s crusade to reinstate his conviction, apparently even its belief that he no longer needs to be incarcerated for his purported crimes. District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro is going to request that the Fifth Circuit to reconsider its decision. No wonder Cannizzaro’s leadership has been so rigorously questioned over the years. Throwing good money after bad, the office will expend even more of its self-proclaimed limited resources challenging a well-reasoned decision that has been years in the making.
When it comes to Brady in Louisiana, what has happened in New Orleans over the past four decades is bad enough. But it is not even close to the whole story. Prosecutors in other jurisdictions in the state behave similarly, disregarding their obligations to disclose exculpatory evidence before trial and fighting defendants’ post-conviction Brady claims for years despite crystal clear proof of misconduct. Consider, for example, the other case in the news right now: the Caddo Parish prosecution of Corey Williams—a case we initially described here.
First, here is the backdrop to the murder charge that Corey Williams faced:
In January of 1998, Petitioner Corey Dewayne Williams was an intellectually disabled 16-year-old child. He still sucked his thumb, urinated himself on an ordinary basis, and regularly ate dirt and paper. Throughout his childhood, he was hospitalized for extreme lead poisoning, institutionalized multiple times, and placed in special education. In his community, he “was known to be a ‘duck’ or what one might refer to as a ‘chump,’” who was willing to take the blame for things he did not do.
Just three weeks past his 16th birthday, Corey was standing in front of a friend’s house when shots were fired, killing a man who had been delivering pizza. Following the shooting, eyewitnesses saw several older men—and not Corey—steal money and pizza from the man who had been shot. When the police interrogated those men, they implicated Corey as the shooter. Upon being arrested and questioned through the night, Corey gave the police a confession. Oblivious to the significance of what he had just said, Corey told the officers he was “ready to go home and lay down.” Based chiefly upon that confession and using one of the older men as its sole eyewitness at trial, the State convicted Corey of first-degree murder.
Ian Millhiser of ThinkProgress sets the stage for the Brady claims now being raised to the U.S. Supreme Court:
[T]he facts of Williams v. Louisiana are so extraordinary that they sound like they were invented by a failed fiction writer. The prosecution’s star witness was a man whose street name was “Rapist,” and who was almost certainly involved in the murder itself. One witness told police that it “don’t make any sense” to conclude that Williams was the murderer, but prosecutors never shared this testimony with Williams’ attorneys. Another said that he’d seen Rapist with the murder weapon, but this information wasn’t shared with Williams’ lawyers either.
During the investigation, police repeatedly stated that they thought that Rapist and two other men were responsible for the murder, and that these three men had agreed among themselves to “blame it on Corey.” Again, this information was never shared with Williams’ lawyers.
According to Williams’s petition for certiorari, the Caddo Parish District Attorney’s office withheld a slew of exculpatory evidence: (1) a witness’s statement that he believed his own brother had killed the victim and that it did not make sense to think that Corey did it; (2) a witness’s statement that the State’s sole eyewitness had been in possession of the murder weapon before the crime; (3) multiple witness statements indicating that older men had threatened them to change their stories; and (4) statements made by police officers suggesting that they believed older men involved in the crime conspired to blame Corey for the murder. Moreover, the prosecution did not turn over actual witness statements before trial. Instead, it turned over “summaries” that law enforcement had created. It just so happened that these “summaries” often misrepresented what the witnesses actually said, in some cases turning clearly exculpatory statements into inculpatory ones. Despite all of this, Louisiana courts rejected Williams’s Brady claims. Now, Williams’s defense team is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene.
The case is beginning to stir up quite a bit of attention. At The Marshall Project, Andrew Cohen writes that this is the rare circumstance in which “the injustice is so evident the justices may reverse Williams’ conviction outright without an oral argument.” On the popular First Mondays podcast about the U.S. Supreme Court, scholars Leah Litman and Ian Samuel recently discussed the case in-depth (here, beginning at the 22:20 mark). Professor Litman took her analysis one step further, describing additional reasons the Court should grant the petition for certiorari here for the TakeCare Blog. Several dozen fair-minded former prosecutors and Department of Justice officials—apparently disturbed when they learned about the State’s conduct in Williams—filed an amicus brief on the Petitioner’s behalf.
In addition to this well-deserved media attention, the Fifth Circuit’s opinion in Floyd underscores the need for the U.S. Supreme Court to grant certiorari in Williams. Floyd demonstrates that disclosure problems persist because both state courts and state prosecutors refuse to comply with Brady. As the amicus brief filed on behalf of the Fair Punishment Project and several law school centers for ethics observes, judges and prosecutors in Louisiana do not seem to be getting the message. (These organizations made this same powerful observation in an amicus brief filed in the Brown case nearly two years ago.) Whatever the reason—or excuse—for Brady non-compliance, federal judicial oversight is unquestionably needed. Floyd reinforces that point.
The Floyd case shares other features with Williams. The Fifth Circuit noted that John Floyd, like Corey Williams, has intellectual disability. Floyd has been measured at an IQ score of 59 and one expert psychologist testified that he had the “communication skills of a ‘second or third grade[r]’, rendering him ‘extremely vulnerable’ to police coercion.” The unreliability of a confession given by a defendant with these vulnerabilities raises pressing questions about the purported “strength” of the evidence of guilt in both cases. (In fact, the Innocence Project of New Orleans, which represented Mr. Floyd, filed an amicus brief describing the link between intellectual disability and false confessions in Williams.) In Williams, it raises its own question about how courts evaluate the materiality of Brady information.
While the infamous Orleans DA office was behind the bunk conviction in Floyd, another notorious office is responsible for Corey Williams’s life-without-parole sentence. The bloodthirsty Caddo Parish office—which had actually put Williams on death row but saw the sentence reduced because the U.S. Supreme Court held that it is unconstitutional to execute intellectually disabled defendants—had a reputation, to say the least. Hugo Holland, the prosecutor who put Williams away, is himself a lightning rod; lying to federal officials, suppressing “clearly exculpatory” evidence, and leading the prosecutorial charge at the state legislature. Although former District Attorney Dale Cox is no longer in office, current Caddo DA James Stewart is continuing to defend the indefensible by contesting Williams’s Brady claims. If a case were ever capable of sending a clear message to prosecutors throughout the state, Corey Williams’s is it. For now, we must wait and see what the Supreme Court will do.