Tuesday, August 2, 2011

State ex rel. Griffin v. Denney[1]

Opinion handed down August 2, 2011
Link to Mo. Sup. Ct. Opinion

Reginald Griffin was convicted of first-degree murder. The conviction stemmed from the murder of an inmate at a correctional facility in which Griffin was also an inmate. In the course of his appeal and proceedings on his motion for post-conviction relief, he discovered that another inmate, who had been in the prison yard where the murder occurred, had been found with a weapon immediately after the murder. Because the prosecution did not disclose this information to him, and he could not assert the claim in his direct appeal or post-conviction relief proceeding due to procedural issues, he filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus with the Supreme Court of Missouri. The Court granted the petition, finding that the failure to disclose the evidence prejudiced Griffin. The dissent disagreed after concluding that evidence of a weapon found on the other inmate was not favorable to Griffin.

I. Facts and Holding

In 1987, Reginald Griffin was charged with first-degree murder of a fellow inmate at the Missouri Training Center for Men.[2] At trial, Paul Curtis testified that he saw Griffin and two other inmates arguing with the victim and that Griffin stabbed the victim.[3] He described the knife as being a foot in length with a yellow rag as its handle.[4] He then testified that Griffin threw the knife on the roof of the gymnasium.[5] Investigators later found a 13-inch knife with its handle wrapped in yellow cloth near the gym.[6] A medical examiner testified that it could have caused the victim's wounds; however, it tested negative for blood.[7] The testimony of the State’s other witness, Wyvonne Mozee, was essentially the same.[8] The credibility of both witnesses was an issue at trial.[9] Curtis stated that he agreed to testify in exchange for assistance with a stealing charge and a letter to the parole board concerning his cooperation.[10] The State also paid one month of his rent upon his release.[11] One defense witness testified that Mozee told him he agreed to testify against Griffin in exchange for early release and that he would say whatever they wanted. Another defense witness testified that Mozee told him that he did not witness the stabbing.[12] Ultimately, Griffin was convicted as charged and sentenced to death.[13]

He appealed his conviction and immediately filed a motion for post-conviction relief based on ineffective assistance of counsel, alleging seventy-eight errors by his preliminary hearing and trial counsel.[14] The motion was denied.[15] The appeal from this denial was consolidated with the appeal from the conviction before the Supreme Court of Missouri.[16] The court ultimately affirmed the conviction and the denial of his motion for post-conviction relief.[17] However, the death sentence was reversed because the prosecution introduced a record of conviction belonging to a different man with the same name.[18] Griffin was resentenced to life in prison without parole.[19] Following this, he unsuccessfully filed a second motion for post-conviction relief and sought federal habeas corpus relief.[20]

In the course of these events, Griffin learned from his co-defendant, Doyle Franks, of certain evidence undisclosed by the prosecution.[21] Specifically, Franks testified during Griffin's post-conviction relief hearing that he and another inmate committed the crime, and that this other inmate was caught with a weapon shortly after the murder.[22] In 2005, Griffin filed a state habeas corpus petition based on the prosecution's nondisclosure of this evidence.[23] In a deposition taken pursuant to this proceeding, Curtis recanted his prior testimony.[24] Further, at a hearing on the habeas petition, another inmate testified that Mozee was with him in the law library when the stabbing occurred.[25] The trial court denied the petition.[26] After his habeas petition was filed with and denied by the Court of Appeals, Griffin filed a third petition with the Supreme Court of Missouri.[27]

In a 4-3 decision, the Supreme Court of Missouri held that Griffin met his burden of proving entitlement to habeas relief.[28] The Court determined that although his claim under Brady v. Maryland was procedurally barred as it was cognizable during his direct appeal and Rule 29.15 hearing, habeas relief could be granted because there was cause and prejudice.[29] First, there was cause for Griffin's failure to raise his claim because the State did not disclose the evidence.[30] In other words, it was not Griffin who was to blame for the delay in bringing the claim, but an objective factor external to the defense.[31] The Court then examined the record to determine whether there was prejudice.[32]

Because the standard for prejudice is the same for habeas relief and Brady claims, the court looked to whether there was prejudice using Brady.[33] The court began its analysis by looking to whether the undisclosed evidence was favorable to Griffin.[34] It answered this question in the affirmative because the fact that another inmate was discovered with a weapon shortly after the murder tended to exculpate him from the crimes and impeach the two State witnesses.[35] The court considered the evidence exculpatory because it placed an alternate perpetrator "in the prison yard with a weapon just minutes after the murder."[36] The weapon impeached the State's witnesses because the jury may have found witness testimony favorable to Griffin more credible.[37] This is especially so given that the other inmate found with the weapon had similar physical characteristics to Griffin.[38] Ultimately, the court believed the evidence supported a viable alternate perpetrator defense, thereby making it favorable.[39]

The court then looked to whether the State suppressed the evidence, again answering in the affirmative.[40] The State was aware of the evidence given that a corrections officer confiscated the weapon and reported the incident, the other inmate was administratively segregated, and the State prosecuted this inmate for possession of the weapon.[41] Even if the prosecutor did not in fact know of this information, the State still had a duty to disclose it under the rationale that the prosecutor is the representative of a sovereign, with an obligation to govern impartially, and whose interest in a prosecution is seeing that justice is done.[42]

Finally, the court looked to whether Griffin was prejudiced.[43] The court believed that certain developments occurring post-trial raised serious doubts concerning the conviction, rendering it "no longer worthy of confidence."[44] First, with the evidence, Griffin's alternate perpetrator theory would have been stronger.[45] Then, the State's primary witness recanted, and the other State witness’s testimony was contradicted.[46] Finally, one of Griffin's co-defendants admitted to committing the crime with the inmate caught with the weapon, and his other co-defendant testified that Griffin was not involved and was not in the prison yard at the time of the murder.[47] The court vacated Griffin's conviction and ordered Griffin discharged from custody for the murder.[48]

The dissenting opinion argued that Griffin failed to show the evidence was favorable to him.[49] The dissent pointed out that the sharpened screwdriver, with which another inmate was caught immediately after the murder, could not have been the murder weapon given the medical examiner's testimony.[50] This testimony was that the victim's wounds, which were 3/4 of an inch wide and 5 1/2 to 6 inches deep, were caused by a knife-like instrument with sharp edges.[51] The screwdriver had a 3 1/2 inch handle, a 5 1/4 inch metal portion, and a sharpened point but no sharp edges.[52] Further, it was clean.[53] The medical examiner testified at the hearing on Griffin's habeas petition, that the screwdriver could not have caused the wounds.[54] The dissent pointed out that this testimony contradicted the possibility that the other inmate committed the murder, adding that the screwdriver does not establish that the other inmate was at the scene or remove Griffin from the scene.[55] Therefore, it does not provide a direct connection between the other inmate and the murder and would have been inadmissible under an alternate perpetrator theory.[56] Being inadmissible, it could not be used to show a Brady violation.[57]

II. Legal Background

A. Brady v. Maryland Claims and Habeas Corpus Relief

Brady v. Maryland provides that suppression of certain evidence by the prosecution is a violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.[58] The United States Supreme Court held that such a violation occurs where the prosecution suppresses evidence favorable to the accused that is material either to guilt or to punishment, regardless of whether the suppression is in good or bad faith.[59] The Court rationalized that such a rule was necessary to avoid unfair trials because society benefits not only when the guilty are convicted but also when trials are fair.[60] It further defined favorable evidence as that which, if made available, "would tend to exculpate [the defendant] or reduce the penalty."[61] It has been determined that Brady requires the prosecutor to learn of favorable evidence to the accused from those acting on the government's behalf.[62] This is required because the prosecutor is a representative of the sovereignty whose primary interest is seeing that justice is done.[63]

The Brady decision has been cited by the Supreme Court of Missouri as requiring proof of the following: (1) the evidence must be favorable to the accused either by being exculpatory or impeaching; (2) the evidence must have been suppressed by the State, either willfully or inadvertently; and (3) prejudice must have ensued.[64] The court has also determined that where the Brady claim is brought in a habeas corpus proceeding, the standard of prejudice used to determine both if habeas review is procedurally barred and whether there is prejudice resulting from the suppression of evidence making up the Brady claim are identical.[65] In determining entitlement to habeas relief, the court looks to the totality of the evidence uncovered between the conviction and the habeas proceeding.[66] For cases involving Brady claims, the court must look to the cumulative effect of the excluded evidence.[67]

Habeas corpus is a last resort to determine the validity of a criminal conviction and is used against convictions that are fundamentally unfair.[68] To balance the interests of preventing unfair convictions and the finality of judgments, habeas relief is denied to a defendant who could have raised his or her claims in an earlier proceeding, unless the defendant can show cause and prejudice, extraordinary circumstances, or that manifest injustice would result.[69] Cause is established by showing that an objective factor external to the defense prevented counsel from complying with the procedural rules.[70] In the context of a Brady claim, the defendant must show the grounds for his claim were unknown to him during direct appeal or post-conviction relief proceedings.[71]

In addition to showing cause, the defendant must also show prejudice.[72] As mentioned earlier, this prejudice standard is the same as that used in analyzing Brady claims.[73] For Brady claims, a defendant must show that there was a "reasonable probability" of a different result.[74] A reasonable probability of a different result exists where the suppressed evidence undermines the confidence in the outcome of the trial.[75] The question is whether the defendant received a fair trial without the evidence.[76] A fair trial is one that results in a verdict worthy of confidence.[77] The defendant is not required to show that it was more likely than not a different verdict would have been obtained with the undisclosed evidence.[78]

B. Alternate Perpetrator Defense

During a criminal trial, a defendant may introduce evidence that tends to show another person committed the offense.[79] However, evidence that another person had an opportunity or motive to commit the offense is not admissible unless it is accompanied by proof that the person committed some act directly connecting him with the crime.[80] The test is whether the evidence directly connects the other person with the corpus delicti and tends to show this person is the guilty party.[81] Disconnected and remote acts do not satisfy this requirement.[82] For instance, the court has upheld exclusion of evidence proffered by the defendant that the victim received obscene phone calls prior to her murder.[83] The defendant in that particular case argued that the caller may have been the murderer, but given that the phone calls occurred a year prior to the murder, the court determined the evidence was disconnected and remote.[84]

The standard for admitting evidence of third-party guilt is high given the "direct connection" rule.[85] However, the Supreme Court of Missouri has determined that the rule does not violate the defendant's constitutional rights to a meaningful opportunity to present a complete defense.[86] These constitutional rights, rooted in the Fourteenth and Sixth Amendments, cannot be impeded by rules that "infringe upon a weighty interest of the accused and are arbitrary or disproportionate to the purposes they are designed to serve."[87] The court determined the direct connection rule did not violate the Constitution because it was not arbitrary in that it prevents confusion of the issues and reduces the potential to mislead the jury.[88] Given the high standard, very few defendants have succeeded in their claims of error on appeal.[89]

III. Comment

Considering the requirements of Brady, the totality of the evidence uncovered between the conviction and the final habeas corpus proceeding, and the cumulative effect of the excluded evidence, the majority came to the correct conclusion. The only evidence remaining to convict Griffin was the knife found next to the gymnasium. With the evidence that another inmate was found with a weapon similar to the knife in certain respects, and who was leaving the scene of the murder, the remaining bit of evidence against Griffin could have been weakened, creating a reasonable probability of a different result. In any event, the only evidence linking Griffin to the knife was the recanted and contradicted testimony.

The dissent contended the information concerning the other inmate leaving the scene of the murder with a screwdriver would not have been admissible and, therefore, could not be favorable to the defendant to satisfy the requirements of Brady. However, many courts have determined that admissibility is not a requirement of Brady; all that is required is that the disclosure create a reasonable probability of a different outcome.[90] The dissent cited to the United States Supreme Court case Wood v. Bartholomew to support its conclusion.[91] That case involved a Brady claim based on the suppression of a failed polygraph examination by one of the State's witnesses.[92] However, the Court did not hold that inadmissibility of the evidence defeats a Brady claim. In fact, it implied the opposite because although the evidence was inadmissible under state law, the Court looked to whether defense counsel, with the evidence, would have deposed the witness prior to trial.[93] It was too speculative for the Court to so determine, and in any event, defense counsel testified that if he had the polygraph examination, it would not have affected his cross-examination.[94] Thus, the Court held that the disclosure of the inadmissible evidence was not "reasonably likely" to have caused a different result.[95]

Even if admissibility is required, the conclusion that the evidence would have been inadmissible because there was no evidence of a direct connection between the other inmate and the crime is debatable. First, the inmate was discovered leaving the area of the prison where the murder occurred immediately after the murder with a weapon fairly similar to the knife discovered by the gym and the described murder weapon. Second, testimony from Griffin's co-defendant during Griffin's post-conviction relief hearing directly connected the other inmate to the crime when the co-defendant admitted to committing the crime alongside this other man.

If the majority decided differently, it is very probable that an innocent man would remain in prison for a crime someone else committed. One might think that if the majority was incorrect, a murderer is being set free. This is not the case. This merely means the court is requiring the State, if it wishes to reconvict, to give the defendant a fair trial.[96] Double jeopardy does not prevent a retrial in cases in which habeas corpus relief has been granted so long as the evidence was sufficient at the first trial to convict, even if it included recanted evidence.[97] Even if the State were not permitted to retry, as William Blackstone once said, "[i]t is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer."[98]

-Emily M. Park

[1] No. SC91112 (Mo. Aug. 2, 2011) (en banc), available at http://www.courts.mo.gov/file.jsp?id=48248. The West Reporter citation is State ex rel. Griffin v. Denney, 347 S.W.3d 73 (Mo. 2011) (en banc).
[2] Id. at 1-2.
[3] Id. at 2. The other two men were Doyle Franks and Arbary Jackson. Id. Franks was eventually convicted of second-degree murder, and Jackson was acquitted. Brief of Petitioner at 5, State ex rel. Griffin v. Denney, No. SC91112, 2011 WL 1035717 (Mo. Feb. 22, 2011). Jackson had always maintained that Griffin was not involved in the murder. Id. at 12.
[4] State ex rel. Griffin v. Denney, No. SC91112, slip op. at 2.
[5] Id.
[6] Id. at 3.
[7] Id. However, preliminary tests detected human blood and proteins. Id. at 3.
[8] Id. at 2.
[9] Id.
[10] Id.
[11] Id.
[12] Id. at 2-3.
[13] State v. Griffin, 848 S.W.2d 464, 466 (Mo. 1993) (en banc).
[14] Id. at 466, 470.
[15] Id. at 466.
[16] Id.
[17] Id. at 472.
[18] Id. at 471.
[19] State ex rel. Griffin v. Denney, No. SC91112, slip op. at 3.
[20] Brief of Petitioner at 3, State ex rel. Griffin v. Denney, No. SC91112, 2011 WL 1035717 (Mo. Feb. 22, 2011).
[21] See id. at 13-14.
[22] Id. at 14.
[23] State ex rel. Griffin v. Denney, No. SC91112, slip op. at 3.
[24] Id. at 8; Brief of Petitioner at 3, No. SC91112, 2011 WL 1035717 (Mo. Feb. 22, 2011).
[25] State ex rel. Griffin v. Denney, No. SC91112, slip op. at 8.
[26] Id. at 4.
[27] Brief of Petitioner at 4, State ex rel. Griffin v. Denney, No. SC91112, 2011 WL 1035717 (Mo. Feb. 22, 2011).
[28] State ex rel. Griffin v. Denney, No. SC91112, slip op. at 1.
[29] Id. at 4.
[30] Id. at 5.
[31] Id.
[32] Id.
[33] Id.
[34] Id. at 6.
[35] Id.
[36] Id.
[37] Id.
[38] Id. at 6-7.
[39] Id. at 7.
[40] Id.
[41] Id.
[42] Id.
[43] Id. at 8.
[44] Id. at 8, 9 (internal quotations omitted).
[45] Id. at 8.
[46] Id.
[47] Id. at 8-9.
[48] Id. at 9-10.
[49] Id. at 1-2 (Russell, J., dissenting).
[50] Id. at 2-3.
[51] Id. at 2.
[52] Id. at 2-3
[53] Id. at 2-3.
[54] Id. at 3.
[55] Id.
[56] Id.
[57] Id. (citing Wood v. Bartholomew, 516 U.S. 1, 8 (1995)).
[58] 373 U.S. 83, 86 (1963).
[59] Id. at 87.
[60] Id.
[61] Id. at 87-88.
[62] State ex rel. Engel v. Dormire, 304 S.W.3d 120, 127 (Mo. 2010) (en banc) (citing Kyles v. Whitley, 514 U.S. 419, 437 (1995)).
[63] Id. at 127.
[64] Id. at 126 (citing Strickler v. Greene, 527 U.S. 263, 281-82 (1999) and Merriweather v. State, 294 S.W.3d 52, 54 (Mo. 2009) (en banc)).
[65] Id. at 126.
[66] Id. (citing State ex rel. Amrine v. Roper, 102 S.W.3d 541, 545 (Mo. 2003) (en banc)).
[67] Id. (citing Kyles, 514 U.S. at 436-37).
[68] Amrine, 102 S.W.3d 541, 545 (Mo. 2003) (en banc).
[69] Id. at 546.
[70] Engel, 304 S.W.3d at 126 (citing Strickler, 527 U.S. at 283 n.24).
[71] Id.
[72] Id. at 128.
[73] See supra note 65 and accompanying text.
[74] Engel, 304 S.W.3d at 128.
[75] Id.
[76] Id.
[77] Id.
[78] Kyles v. Whitley, 514 U.S. 419, 434 (1995).
[79] State v. Bowman, 337 S.W.3d 679, 686 (Mo. 2011) (en banc).
[80] State v. Umfrees, 433 S.W.2d 284, 288 (Mo. 1968) (en banc).
[81] Id.
[82] Id.
[83] State v. LaRette, 648 S.W.2d 96, 103 (Mo. 1983) (en banc).
[84] Id.
[85] See State v. Nash, 339 S.W.3d 500, 512-14 (Mo. 2011) (en banc).
[86] Id. at 513.
[87] Id. (citing Holmes v. South Carolina, 547 U.S. 319, 324 (2006)).
[88] Id. at 514.
[89] However, there have been successes. See, e.g., State v. Barriner, 111 S.W.3d 396, 399-400 (Mo. 2003) (en banc) (hair found at the scene of the crime in "significant" areas that did not belong to the defendant or the victim); State v. Butler, 951 S.W.2d 600, 609 (Mo. 1997) (en banc) (testimony of a witness that observed a car matching another man's description and testimony from two others that the other person attempted to sell them a ring matching the description of the victim's ring); State v. Woodworth, 941 S.W.2d 679, 684 (Mo. App. W.D. 1997) (victim's prior inconsistent statement that another person was his assailant).
[90] White v. Helling, 194 F.3d 937, 946 (8th Cir. 1999) (although the documents were not admissible, the court provided that they "would surely have been the basis for further investigation, and could at the very least have been used to impeach police witnesses"); United States v. Brown, 650 F.3d 581, 588 n.12 (5th Cir. 2011) (providing that the evidence need not be admissible to be material under Brady); Henness v. Bagley, 644 F.3d 308, 325 (6th Cir. 2011) (although the statement was hearsay, the defendant need only show that it would have led to the discovery of additional, admissible evidence). But see Merriweather v. State, 294 S.W.3d 52, 57 n.5 (Mo. 2009) (en banc) (providing that the evidence "never would have been admissible, and, therefore, could not be considered 'material,'" without citing any support).
[91] State ex rel. Griffin v. Denney, No. SC91112, slip op. at 3 (Russell, J. dissenting) (citing Wood v. Bartholomew, 516 U.S. 1, 8 (1995)).
[92] Wood, 516 U.S. at 4-5.
[93] Id. at 6-8.
[94] Id. at 7.
[95] Id. at 8.
[96] State ex rel. Griffin v. Denney, No. SC91112, slip op. at 10.
[97] State ex rel. Engel v. Dormire, 304 S.W.3d 120, 129 (Mo. 2010) (en banc); State ex rel. Amrine v. Roper, 102 S.W.3d 541, 549 (Mo. 2003) (en banc).
[98] Burton Stevenson, The Macmillan Book of Proverbs, Maxims, and Famous Phrases 1249 (Macmillan 1948) (citing William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Vol. iv, ch. 27 (1765)).