Juan Smith v. Warden Burl Cain, 23 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. S32 (Jan 10, 2012)

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An opinion delivered by Chief Justice Roberts, followed by all but Justice Thomas who dissents.

Juan Smith was convicted of 5 counts of murder in Louisiana.  He appealed his conviction which was affirmed and the State Supreme Court and the US Supreme Court denied review.  Mr. Smith then sought post conviction relief in the state court.  It was at this time that Mr. Smith obtained the file of lead investigator Det. John Ronquillo.

Mr. Smith was convicted of five murders by the sole testimony of one eye witness, Larry Boatner.  At trial, Mr. Bostner unequivocally stated that he had “no doubt” that Smith was the gunman that he had stood “face to face” with on the night of the crimes.  No other witnesses or physical evidence implicated Smith to the crime.  Upon the disclosure of Det. John Ronquillo’s investigation file (which was not disclosed prior to trial but upon asking for post conviction relief)) it was discovered that the detective had several conversations with Mr. Boatner.  On the night of the murders Det. John Ronquillo wrote that Boatner “could not . . . supply a description of the perpetrators other than they were black males.”  Five days later Ronquillo’s notes add that Boatner “could not ID anyone because [he] couldn’t see faces” and “would not know them if [he] saw them.”  Ronquillo’s type written report states that the conversation with Boatner indicated that he “could not identify any of the perpetrators of the murder.”

The Court found that this was clearly a Brady [v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963)] violation and the case was reversed and remanded for a new trial.

We have explained that “evidence is ‘material’ within the meaning of Brady when there is a reasonable probability that, had the evidence been disclosed, the result of the proceeding would have been different.” Cone v. Bell, 556 U.S. 449, 469-470 (2009) [21 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. S795a]. A reasonable probability does not mean that the defendant “would more likely than not have received a different verdict with the evidence,” only that the likelihood of a different result is great enough to “undermine[ ] confidence in the outcome of the trial.” Kyles v. Whitley, 514 U.S. 419, 434 (1995) (internal quotation marks omitted).

The majority opinion is short and sweet.  The dissent is much longer and I have yet to read it.  I will update…

Eric J Dirga, PA

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