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Smith v. Cain: The Prosecution’s Duty to Disclose Evidence

January 11, 2012 Criminal Law and Procedure

The case of Smith v. Cain did not break new legal ground but instead served to correct a past injustice.

Smith was charged and convicted of killing five people during an armed robbery in Louisiana. At trial, the jury heard the testimony of a single witness, Larry Boatner.  Boatner testified that he was at a friend’s home when Smith and two other robbers entered the home, demanded valuables, and began shooting. He identified Smith at trial as the one robber he had seen face to face.  Boatner’s testimony was the sole evidence in the case, as no other witnesses testified and there was no physical evidence.

Smith’s conviction was affirmed by the Louisiana Court of Appeals and review of his case was denied by the Louisiana Supreme Court. During Smith’s attempts for post-conviction relief he obtained files from the police investigation. Those files contained notes of pre-trial statements by Boatner that conflicted with his testimony at trial.

Specifically, Boatner had stated immediately after the crime that he could not supply an accurate description of the robbers. Five days later Boatner made a statement that he “could not ID anyone because he couldn’t see faces” and “wouldn’t know them if he saw them.”

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The 1963 case of Brady v. Maryland deals with the duty of the prosecution to disclose evidence. Brady held that a defendant’s due process rights are violated when the State withholds evidence that is favorable to the defendant and material to the defendant’s guilt or punishment. Evidence is material when there is a reasonable probability that, had the evidence been disclosed, the likelihood of a different result of the proceeding is great enough to undermine confidence in the outcome of the proceeding.

Related:  Kentucky v. King:  Destruction of Evidence and Warrantless Searches

The State of Louisiana did not dispute that this evidence is favorable to Smith, but instead argued that there is not a reasonable probability of a different outcome of the case. The State’s argument would be correct if there had been other evidence sufficient to sustain a conviction. However, Boatner’s testimony was the only evidence linking Smith to the murders. Boatner’s pre-trial statements directly contradicted his trial testimony and those statements could have been used by Smith at trial to impeach Boatner’s credibility.

The Court ruled in favor of Smith and reversed the judgment of the lower court.

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