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United States v. Agurs

    Brief Fact Summary. The prosecutor did not disclose that the defendant’s victim had an extensive criminal record. Counsel for the defendant argued that such information would have bolstered a self-defense argument, and sought a new trial.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. “The prosector’s failure to tender [evidence] to the defense did not deprive respondent of a fair trial . . ., where it appears the record was not requested by defense counsel” and did not involve perjury, and the trial judge was “convinced of [defendant’s] guilt beyond a reasonable doubt” taking the evidence into consideration within the record, and that “the judge’s first hand appraisal of the entire record was thorough and entirely reasonable.”

    Facts. Defendent Agurs [“the Defendant”] was convicted of second-degree murder in the stabbing death of the Victim, James Sewell [“the Victim”].
    On September 24, 1971, the Defendant and the Victim registered at a hotel as man and wife. The Victim had two knives on his person. The Victim’s estranged wife testified he had $360 with him as well.
    Fifteen minutes later, three hotel employees hear the Defendant screaming for help. Upon forced entry, the employees found the Defendant and the Victim struggling for possession of one of the knives. The Victim had several wounds. The parties were separated and the police were called.
    The Victim was DOA. The Defendant had no knife wounds. No money was found in the Victim’s personal effects.
    Defendant’s counsel argued for self-defense. Defendant was nonetheless convicted of second-degree murder.
    Three months, later, defense counsel filed a motion for a new trial, as he had discovered that “(1) that [the Victim] had a prior criminal record that would have further enhanced his violent character; (2) that the prosecutor had failed to disclose this information to the defense; and (3) that a recent opinion of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit made it clear that such evidence was admissible even if not known to the defendant.”

    Issue. “Whether the prosecutor has any constitutional duty to volunteer exculpatory matter to the defense, and if so, what standard of materiality gives rise to that duty.”

    Held. No. The Supreme Court distinguished this case from the previous “Brady Rule” upon which the Defendant made its case. “Brady” applied to three specific situations. First, the undisclosed information demonstrates that the prosecutor relied on perjured testimony, and the prosecutor “knew or should have known.” Second, the defense makes a pretrial request for specific evidence. Neither of these situations were applicable to the present case. The third situation, however, is a pretrail defense request for any evidence relating to the matter about to be tried. Because such a request “really gives the prosecutor no better choice than if no request is made,” and because the prosecutor has a duty to disclose truly exculpatory evidence, the court concluded that “there is no significant difference” between cases in which a general request is made, and in cases, such as this one, where there is no request. With regards to the demands of a fair trial under the Due Process Clause of
    the Fifth Amendment as applied to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment, the court held that (1) “a prosecutor does not violate the constitutional duty of disclosure unless his omission is sufficiently significant to result in the denial of the defendant’s right to a fair trial”; (2) the Constitution does not demand “discovery of everything that might influence a jury,” and “the mere possibility that an item of undisclosed information might have aided the defense, or might have affected the outcome of the trial, does not establish “materiality” in the constitutional sense; (3) the prosecutor’s constitutional duty of disclosure is not measured by his “moral culpability or willfulness” and “if the suppression of evidence results in constitutional error, it is because of the character of the evidence, not the character of the prosecutor”; (4) “the proper standard of undisclosed evidence . . . is that if the omitted evidence creates a reasonable doubt of guilt that did not otherwise exis
    t, constitutional error has been committed.”

    Dissent. The dissent objected to the standard of materiality set forth as it reduces the prosecutor’s obligation “to serve justice” to a status of “no special significance”; that a defendant’s right to a fair trial is violated if all evidence is not aired and “creates little, if any, incentive for the prosecutor to resolve close questions of disclosure in favor of concealment”; and that the rule “usurps the function of the jury as the trier of fact in a criminal case.”

    Discussion. “The proper standard of materiallity [of evidence] must reflect our overriding concern with the justice of the finding of guilt. Such a finding is permissible only if supported by evidence establishing guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”


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