The Supreme Court’s liberal wing was so thoroughly convinced that prosecutors illegally withheld evidence in the case of a botched-prison-escape-turned-murder that they would have reversed a convicted man’s death sentence without even hearing argument. The Court’s conservative majority refused to hear the case, however, leaving the condemned inmate’s looming execution intact despite another man’s confession.
David Brown is part of the “Angola 5,” a group of inmates took prison guards hostage during an attempted escape from the maximum-security state penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana, in late December 1999. The original group consisted of six inmates, but one was shot and killed during the escape attempt. Capt. David Knapps, 41, was also killed, and all five inmates were charged with — and convicted of — first-degree murder.
Brown admitted that he took part in the escape attempt, but maintained that he didn’t participate in Knapps’ killing, nor did he intend for the prison guard to be killed. According to Brown, codefendant Barry Edge struck the officer on the head with a mallet. Brown says he then pulled Knapps into a nearby bathroom and assured the man that “nothing [is] gonna happen to you” and “nobody’s going to hurt you,” before offering the officer a drink of water. Brown says he was not present when Knapps died.
Prosecutors consistently argued that Brown was lying, and that he had actively participated in Knapps’ murder. The physical evidence against Brown was profound, as Knapps’ blood was found on Brown’s body and clothing.
Brown was convicted by a jury and sentenced to death. It was later revealed, however, that prosecutors had suppressed a confession Edge had made to another inmate. Edge did not mention Brown having been involved with Knapps death at all, and instead said that Edge and a different codefendant had decided to kill Knapps.
The trial judge — who presided over Brown’s trial and the trials of all Brown’s codefendants — found that prosecutors violated the law and granted Brown a new hearing for the penalty phase of his case. However, on the state’s appeal, the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled 4-3 vote that suppression of Edge’s confession had not been a violation of Brady v. Maryland.
In that 1963 case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a defendant’s due process rights are violated if a state withholds evidence favorable to the defendant and related to guilt or punishment. Since then, prosecutors have been required to provide so-called “Brady material” to criminal defendants.
Despite the fact that Brady violations are a very common basis for appeals of criminal convictions, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority was unwilling to take up Brown’s appeal and denied certiorari on Monday. The Court’s liberal flank, however, would not only heard the case — it would have sided with Brown and reversed his death sentence.
Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, penned a dissent.
The fact that Edge’s confession was the only evidence supporting Brown’s account that didn’t come from Brown himself put it squarely in the “Brady material” category, Jackson wrote.
“By inculpating Edge and Clark in the victim’s death — without any mention of Brown — the confession supports an inference that Brown was not one of the individuals who killed or decided to kill the victim,” Jackson wrote, adding that a jury could have determined that Edge’s confession “[supports] Brown’s argument that he was less culpable than his codefendants and did not deserve to be sentenced to death.”
Jackson wrote that the Louisiana Supreme Court conducted an “erroneous” analysis that, among other errors, recounted reasons why a jury might disregard Edge’s confession, “while completely ‘ignoring reasons [it] might not.’”
The dissenting justices said that they not only would have granted certiorari, but that they would have summarily reversed the Louisiana Supreme Court’s ruling — meaning that the question of a Brady violation was so clear that it didn’t warrant further briefing or argument.
Jackson ended the four-page dissent with a focused criticism of the Pelican State’s judiciary.
“We have repeatedly reversed lower courts — and Louisiana courts, in particular — for similar refusals to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment’s mandate that favorable and material evidence in the government’s possession be disclosed to the defense before trial,” Jackson noted.
The dissent was something of a replay of a statement the justice issued in Nov. 2022 in the case of Davel V. Chinn. In that case, Jackson, joined by Sotomayor, would have taken up Chinn’s death row appeal on the basis of a Brady violation by Ohio prosecutors. Jackson noted in the Chinn dissent that in these types of cases, someone’s “life is on the line.”
Counsel for David Brown did not immediately respond to Law&Crime’s request for comment.