United States v. Agurs

Decision Date24 June 1976
Docket NumberNo. 75-491,75-491
PartiesUNITED STATES, Petitioner, v. Linda AGURS
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

Respondent was convicted of second-degree murder for killing one Sewell with a knife during a fight. Evidence at the trial disclosed, Inter alia, that Sewell, just before the killing, had been carrying two knives, including the one with which respondent stabbed him, that he had been repeatedly stabbed, but that respondent herself was uninjured. Subsequently, respondent's counsel moved for a new trial, asserting that he had discovered that Sewell had a prior criminal record (including guilty pleas to charges of assault and carrying a deadly weapon, apparently a knife) that would have tended to support the argument that respondent acted in self-defense, and that the prosecutor had failed to disclose this information to the defense. The District Court denied the motion on the ground that the evidence of Sewell's criminal record was not material, because it shed no light on his character that was not already apparent from the uncontradicted evidence, particularly the fact that he had been carrying two knives, the court stressing the inconsistency between the self-defense claim and the fact that Sewell had been stabbed repeatedly while respondent was unscathed. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the evidence of Sewell's criminal record was material and that its nondisclosure required a new trial because the jury might have returned a different verdict had the evidence been received. Held : The prosecutor's failure to tender Sewell's criminal record to the defense did not deprive respondent of a fair trial as guaranteed by the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment, where it appears that the record was not requested by defense counsel and gave rise to no inference of perjury, that the trial judge remained convinced of respondent's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt after considering the criminal record in the context of the entire record, and that the judge's firsthand appraisal of the entire record was thorough and entirely reasonable. Mooney v. Holohan, 294 U.S. 103, 55 S.Ct. 340, 79 L.Ed. 791; Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 83 S.Ct. 1194, 10 L.Ed.2d 215, distinguished. Pp. 103-114.

(a) 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. Pp. 109-110.

(b) Whether or not procedural rules authorizing discovery of everything that might influence a jury might be desirable, the Constitution does not demand such broad discovery; 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. Pp. 109-110.

(c) Nor is the prosecutor's constitutional duty of disclosure measured by his moral culpability or willfulness; if the suppression of evidence results in constitutional error, it is because of the character of the evidence, not the character of the prosecutor. P. 110.

(d) The proper standard of materiality of undisclosed evidence, and the standard applied by the trial judge in this case, is that if the omitted evidence creates a reasonable doubt of guilt that did not otherwise exist, constitutional error has been committed. Pp. 112-144.

167 U.S.App.D.C. 28, 510 F.2d 1249, reversed.

Andrew L. Frey, Washington, D. C., for petitioner.

Edwin J. Bradley, Washington, D. C., for respondent.

Mr. Justice STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

After a brief interlude in an inexpensive motel room, respondent repeatedly stabbed James Sewell, causing his death. She was convicted of second-degree murder. The question before us is whether the prosecutor's failure to provide defense counsel with certain background information about Sewell, which would have tended to support the argument that respondent acted in self-defense, deprived her of a fair trial under the rule of Brady v. Marand, 373 U.S. 83, 83 S.Ct. 1194, 10 L.Ed.2d 215.

The answer to the question depends on (1) a review of the facts, (2) the significance of the failure of defense counsel to request the material, and (3) the standard by which the prosecution's failure to volunteer exculpatory material should be judged.

I

At about 4:30 p. m. on September 24, 1971, respondent, who had been there before, and Sewell, registered in a motel as man and wife. They were assigned a room without a bath. Sewell was wearing a bowie knife in a sheath, and carried another knife in his pocket. Less than two hours earlier, according to the testimony of his estranged wife, he had had $360 in cash on his person.

About 15 minutes later three motel employees heard respondent screaming for help. A forced entry into their room disclosed Sewell on top of respondent struggling for possession of the bowie knife. She was holding the knife; his bleeding hand grasped the blade; according to one witness he was trying to jam the blade into her chest. The employees separated the two and summoned the authorities. Respondent departed without comment before they arrived. Sewell was dead on arrival at the hospital.

Circumstantial evidence indicated that the parties had completed an act of intercourse, that Sewell had then gone to the bathroom down the hall, and that the struggle occurred upon his return. The contents of his pockets were in disarray on the dresser and no money was found; the jury may have inferred that respondent took Sewell's money and that the fight started when Sewell re-entered the room and saw what she was doing.

On the following morning respondent surrendered to the police. She was given a physical examination which revealed no cuts or bruises of any kind, except needle marks on her upper arm. An autopsy of Sewell disclosed that he had several deep stab wounds in his chest and abdomen, and a number of slashes on his arms and hands, characterized by the pathologist as "defensive wounds." 1

Respondent offered no evidence. Her sole defense was the argument made by her attorney that Sewell had initially attacked her with the knife, and that her actions had all been directed toward saving her own life. The support for this self-defense theory was based on the fact that she had screamed for help. Sewell was on top of her when help arrived, and his possession of two knives indicated that he was a violence-prone person.2 It took the jury about 25 minutes to elect a foreman and return a verdict.

Three months later defense counsel filed a motion for a new trial asserting that he had discovered (1) that Sewell had a prior criminal record that would have further evidenced 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.3 Sewell's prior record included a plea of guilty to a charge of assault and carry- ing a deadly weapon in 1963, and another guilty plea to a charge of carrying a deadly weapon in 1971. Apparently both weapons were knives.

The Government opposed the motion, arguing that there was no duty to tender Sewell's prior record to the defense in the absence of an appropriate request; that the evidence was readily discoverable in advance of trial and hence was not the kind of "newly discovered" evidence justifying a new trial; and that, in all events, it was not material.

The District Court denied the motion. It rejected the Government's argument that there was no duty to disclose material evidence unless requested to do so, 4 assumed that the evidence was admissible, but held that it was not sufficiently material. The District Court expressed the opinion that the prior conviction shed no light on Sewell's character that was not already apparent from the uncontradicted evidence, particularly the fact that he carried two knives; the court stressed the inconsistency between the claim of self-defense and the fact that Sewell had been stabbed repeatedly while respondent was unscathed.

The Court of Appeals reversed.5 The court found no lack of diligence on the part of the defense and no misconduct by the prosecutor in this case. It held, however, that the evidence was material, and that its nondisclosure required a new trial because the jury might have returned a different verdict if the evidence had been received.6

The decision of the Court of Appeals represents a significant departure from this Court's prior holding; because we believe that that court has incorrectly interpreted the constitutional requirement of due process, we reverse.

II

The rule of Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 83 S.Ct. 1194, 10 L.Ed.2d 215, arguably applies in three quite different situations. Each involves the discovery, after trial of information which had been known to the prosecution but unknown to the defense.

In the first situation, typified by Mooney v. Holohan, 294 U.S. 103, 55 S.Ct. 340, 79 L.Ed. 791, the undisclosed evidence demonstrates that the prosecution's case includes perjured testimony and that the prosecution knew, or should have known, of the perjury.7 In a series of subsequent cases, the Court has consistently held that a conviction obtained by the knowing use of perjured testimony is fundamentally unfair,8 and must be set aside if there is any reasonable likelihood that the false testimony could have affected the judgment of the jury.9 It is this line of cases on which the Court of Appeals placed primary reliance in those cases the Court has applied a strict standard of materiality, not just because they involve prosecutorial misconduct, but more importantly because they involve a corruption of the truth-seeking function of the trial process. Since this case involves no misconduct, and since there is no reason...

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