Over a dissent from the court’s three liberal justices, the Supreme Court turned down a request from a Louisiana man on death-row to weigh in on when someone else’s confession is the kind of evidence that the Constitution requires prosecutors to turn over. The court’s denial of review in Brown v. Louisiana came at the end of a list of orders from the justices’ private conference last week.
The justices did not add any new cases to their docket for the 2023-24 term.
David Brown was one of the “Angola 5,” a group that tried unsuccessfully to escape from a maximum-security prison in Louisiana in 1999. During the failed attempt, prison guard David Knapps was beaten to death with a hammer.
Brown admitted that he had tried to escape, but he maintained that he had not been present when Knapps was killed, much less had any role in his death. He was convicted and sentenced to death by a jury in 2011.
Several months after Brown’s trial, prosecutors disclosed for the first time an interview in which another member of the Angola 5, Barry Edge, confessed to Knapps’s murder without implicating Brown. The judge who tried Brown ordered a new sentencing hearing for him in 2014. Judge Jerome Winsberg ruled that the prosecution’s failure to provide Brown with Edge’s statement violated the Supreme Court’s landmark 1963 decision in Brady v. Maryland, holding that prosecutors must provide a defendant with favorable evidence.
But the Louisiana Supreme Court reinstated Brown’s death sentence. It ruled that even if prosecutors had turned over Edge’s statement, it wouldn’t have made a difference in Brown’s case – because, for example, of the physical evidence connecting Brown to the assault on Knapps and because Edge’s statement “is actually silent as to which individuals participated in the physical attack” on Knapps.
Brown came to the Supreme Court last summer, asking the justices to take up his case. On Monday, the justices rejected that plea.
Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson dissented from the court’s decision not to review Brown’s case. In a four-page opinion joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, Jackson contended that the Louisiana Supreme Court’s decision reinstating the death penalty was obviously wrong. Edge’s confession was favorable to Brown because, by implicating Edge and another individual in the attack on Knapps, it “supports an inference that Brown was not one of the individuals who killed or decided to kill the victim,” Jackson wrote. And if the jury that sentenced Brown to death had heard Edge’s confession, Jackson continued, there is a chance that at least one juror might have voted to give Brown a life sentence, rather than the death penalty. Therefore, she explained, she would have granted Brown’s petition for review and summarily reversed – that is, ruled in his favor without additional briefing or oral argument.
The justices’ next regularly scheduled conference is on Friday, April 14; they are also expected to issue opinions in argued cases that day. Orders from the April 14 conference are expected on Monday, April 17, at 9:30 a.m.
This post is also published on SCOTUSblog.