Turner v United States: No New Trial in Notorious DC Murder Case
In Turner v United States, 582 U. S. ____ (2017), the U.S. Supreme Court refused to grant new trials to several defendants convicted of the brutal 1984 murder of Catherine Fuller in Washington, D.C. The defendants had argued that prosecutors withheld evidence that was both favorable to the defense and material to their guilt in violation of Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963).
Facts of Turner v United States
Timothy Catlett, Russell Overton, Levy Rouse, Kelvin Smith, Charles and Christopher Turner, and Clifton Yarborough were indicted for the kidnapping, robbery, and murder of Catherine Fuller. At trial, the Government advanced the theory that Fuller was attacked by a large group of individuals known as the Eighth and H Street Crew. The case largely rested on the testimony of Calvin Alston and Harry Bennett, who confessed to participating in a group attack and cooperated with the Government in return for leniency. Several other Government witnesses corroborated aspects of Alston’s and Bennett’s testimony.
None of the defendants rebutted the prosecution witnesses’ claims that Fuller was killed in a group attack, and they were subsequently convicted. Many years later, petitioners discovered that prosecutors had withheld evidence from the defense at the time of trial. In post-conviction proceedings, they argued that seven specific pieces of withheld evidence were both favorable to the defense and material to their guilt under Brady. This evidence included the identity of a man, James McMillan, seen running into the alley after the murder and stopping near the garage where Fuller’s body had already been found; the statement of a passerby who claimed to hear groans coming from a closed garage; and evidence tending to impeach witnesses Eleby, Jacobs, and Thomas. The D.C. Superior Court rejected petitioners’ Brady claims, finding that the withheld evidence was not material. The D.C. Court of Appeals affirmed.
The Majority Decision in Turner v United States
By a vote of 6-2, the Court held that the withheld evidence was “too little, too weak, or too distant from the main evidentiary points to meet Brady’s standards.” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote on behalf of the majority.
According to the majority, the case was “legally simple but factually complex.” It further concluded that disclosing the existence of McMillan would not have changed the outcome of the trial, highlighting that none of the defendants rebutted the “gang theory” or argued that the murder was caused by a lone attacker.
“Rather, each petitioner pursued what was essentially a ‘not me, maybe them’ defense, namely, that he was not part of the group that attacked Fuller,” Breyer wrote. “Each tried to establish this defense by impeaching witnesses who had placed that particular petitioner at the scene.”
Justice Breyer added: “A group attack was the very cornerstone of the Government’s case, and virtually every witness to the crime agreed that Fuller was killed by a large group of perpetrators. It is not reasonably probable that the withheld evidence could have led to a different result at trial.”
The Dissent in Turner v United States
Justice Elena Kagan authored a dissenting opinion, which was joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “With the undisclosed evidence, the whole tenor of the trial would have changed,” Justice Kagan wrote. “Rather than relying on a ‘not me, maybe them’ defense, all the defendants would have relentlessly impeached the government’s (thoroughly impeachable) witnesses and offered the jurors a way to view the crime in a different light,” she argued. “In my view, that could well have flipped one or more jurors.
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Congress of the United States begun and held at the City of New-York, on Wednesday the fourth of March, one thousand seven hundred and eighty nine.
THE Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.