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Supreme Court orders new trial for convicted New Orleans killer

January 10, 2012 | 10:06 am

This post has been corrected. See the note at the bottom for details.

The Supreme Court issued a sharp rebuke to New Orleans prosecutors Tuesday, giving a new trial to a man convicted of shooting and killing five people during the robbery of a drug house because the government withheld crucial evidence.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said the court could have “no confidence” in the conviction because the jury was not told that the sole eyewitness to the crime had initially told police he “could not ID anyone.”

The 8-1 decision is the latest to put a spotlight on the problem of prosecutors and police concealing evidence.

In Brady vs. Maryland in 1963, the high court said criminal defendants had a right to be told about evidence that is “favorable to the defense and material to the defendant’s guilt or punishment,” as Roberts put it.

But enforcing that rule has proven difficult. Hidden evidence can remain hidden for many years, even decades.

Last year, the high court was sharply criticized for overturning a $14-million jury verdict in a civil trial that favored another New Orleans man who was wrongly convicted of murder and nearly executed. John Thompson was weeks away from being put to death when an investigator found a hidden blood test in the police files that led to his exoneration.

By a 5-4 vote, however, the justices ruled the district attorney’s office could not held liable for the mistakes made by several of its trial prosecutors.

Shortly after that ruling, the justices agreed to hear the case of Juan Smith, who was convicted of shooting and killing five people during the robbery of a drug house. Smith was identified as the perpetrator by Larry Boatner, who was in the house and survived the shooting.

Years after Smith’s conviction, lawyers working on his appeal obtained notes from the police investigation. Boatner had told the lead investigator he “could not ID anyone because (he) couldn’t see faces” and he “wouldn't know them if he saw them.”

The investigator’s report concluded Boatner “could not identify any of the perpetrators of the murder.”

Nevertheless, when the case went to trial, Boatner testified he saw Smith clearly come through the door and begin shooting. No other witnesses or physical evidence pointed to Smith.

The Louisiana courts refused to reopen Smith’s case, and the Louisiana Supreme Court turned down his appeals.

But the Supreme Court reversed the conviction Tuesday in a brief but blunt opinion. “Boatner’s undisclosed statements were plainly material,” the chief justice said. “We hold that Boatner’s undisclosed statements alone suffice to undermine confidence in Smith’s conviction.”

Justice Clarence Thomas dissented alone. “Smith is not entitled to a new trial simply because the jury could have accorded some weight to Boatner’s undisclosed statements,” he said. Thomas, who wrote last year’s opinion in the John Thompson case, said there were other statements from Boatner that confirm he did indeed see Smith.

For the record, 3:59 p.m. Jan. 10: A previous version of this post said that five men were killed in the robbery. Not all of the victims were male.

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-- David G. Savage in Washington

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