Tuesday, January 8, 2013

State ex rel. Mark Woodworth v. Larry Denney[1]

Opinion handed down January 8, 2013
The Supreme Court of Missouri vacated Mark Woodworth’s convictions for murder, assault, burglary and armed criminal action because the State violated Brady v. Maryland by failing to turn over material exculpatory evidence.[2]

I. Facts and Holding
On November 13, 1990, Lyndel and Catherine Robertson were shot while sleeping in their home.[3]  Mrs. Robertson died before paramedics arrived, but Mr. Robertson survived the attack.[4]  Claude Woodworth and his family, including his son Mark, the defendant, lived across the street and shared a machine shed on the Robertson’s property.[5]  Both Claude and Mr. Robertson owned identical Ruger pistols and testing could not verify whether either gun fired the rounds that killed Mrs. Robertson.[6]  The investigation was dormant until July 1992.[7]
Mr. Robertson hired a private investigator to conduct an examination of the case who was given complete access to the sheriff’s files.[8]  The investigator decided that Mark Woodworth should be the prime suspect and suggested so to the sheriff, who brought Mark in for questioning.[9]  Mr. Robertson lobbied the prosecutor to bring charges against Mark and when the prosecutor failed to do so, he asked circuit judge, Kenneth Lewis, to present the charges to a grand jury.[10]  Judge Lewis assigned the case to the Attorney General’s office to represent the state in the proceedings.[11]  Three years after the killing, Mark was charged with second-degree murder, first-degree burglary, first-degree assault and two counts of armed criminal action.[12] Mark, 16 at the time of the incident, was certified to be tried as an adult.[13]
The evidence at Woodworth’s trial was circumstantial.[14]  Woodworth testified in his own defense.[15]  He attempted to introduce evidence that Brandon Thomure, an ex-boyfriend of the Robertsons’ daughter, was the true culprit.[16]  There was evidence that Thomure physically abused the daughter and that while Mr. Robertson was in the hospital Mr. Robertson told people that Thomure had shot him.[17]  However, the trial court excluded this evidence and Mark was found guilty on all counts and sentenced to 31 years.[18]  On appeal, the Court found that the trial court erred in excluding the evidence pertaining to Thomure and that this exclusion was prejudicial.[19]  The court reversed and remanded for a new trial.[20]  On remand, Mark was found guilty again of all counts and was sentenced to four consecutive life sentences plus an additional 15 years.[21]
After the court of appeals affirmed the conviction, the trial and appellate courts denied post-conviction relief as well as Mark’s petition for writ of habeas corpus.[22] The Supreme Court of Missouri issued a writ of habeas corpus and appointed a special master to take evidence and issue a report on the claims that the State violated their duty under Brady v. Maryland to disclose exculpatory evidence to the defense.[23]  Mark alleged that the State failed to disclose three letters that involved an assistant attorney general, Judge Lewis, and Mr. Robertson.[24]  Mark also alleged that the State failed to disclose evidence that Thomure violated an ex parte order of protection the Robertsons’ daughter obtained after the attack and evidence of two witnesses that discredited Thomure’s alibi for the day of the attack.[25]  After seven evidentiary hearings, the special master filed his report finding that the prosecution did violate their duty to disclose exculpatory evidence resulting in prejudice to Mark that undermined confidence in the verdict.[26]  The special master recommended that the conviction be set aside and an independent prosecutor review the case before a decision for retrial is made.[27]
The Court found that the master’s recommendations were supported by substantial evidence, not against the weight of the evidence and did not “erroneously” apply the law.[28]  The master concluded that the State failed to disclose the letters to the defense and the reports of the ex parte order violations.[29]  The letters did not include Bates stamps which number each page for tracking, the inventory of the prosecution file did not mention the letters and defense counsel testified that they had never seen the letters.[30] The violations of the order of protection also did not contain Bates stamps and were not on the inventory list.[31]  The master also found that this failure to disclose affected Woodworth’s defense because he could have used them to impeach key witnesses.[32]  Because the evidence against Woodworth was entirely circumstantial, this could have caused a “not guilty” verdict.[33]  This Brady violation caused prejudice to “undermine confidence” in the verdict, therefore, the Court vacated Mark’s conviction.[34]
II. Legal Background
In Brady v. Maryland, the Supreme Court of the United States held that failure to disclose evidence that is favorable to the defense is a violation of due process.[35]  It does not matter whether the evidence is material to either guilt or punishment nor if the failure to disclose was in good or bad faith by the prosecution.[36]  To establish a Brady violation, a defendant must prove that the evidence is favorable to him, that it was suppressed by the State, and that the defendant was prejudiced.[37]  The evidence must be favorable to the defendant because it is either exculpatory or because it impeaches material witnesses.[38]  To show prejudice, a defendant must prove that the evidence was material, but this does not mean a defendant needs to prove that the evidence would have resulted in an acquittal.[39]  Instead, a defendant must show a “reasonable probability” of a different result.[40]  The defendant is prejudiced when the suppression of evidence “undermines confidence in the outcome of the trial.”[41]  If the defendant meets all three elements of a Brady violation, then the conviction or sentence must be overturned.
A Brady violation can occur whether the prosecutor knows about the information or not.[42]  The prosecutor has a duty to learn of any exculpatory evidence known by others acting for the government in the case.[43]  The prosecutor is a “representative” of a “sovereignty” whose interest is in justice, not in winning a criminal prosecution.[44]  Therefore, it does not matter if the violation was willful or inadvertent or if the prosecutor had knowledge of the suppressed evidence.[45]  It also does not matter if the defense requested access to the evidence or not.[46]
When considering whether the evidence suppressed was material and a violation of Brady, the court will look at the all of the suppressed evidence to make the decision.[47] The evidence should be looked at collectively.[48] After looking at all of the pieces of evidence that were allegedly suppressed, the court will decide if the defendant was prejudiced.[49]
III. Comment
Prosecutors must take their responsibilities to disclose exculpatory evidence to defendants very seriously, because when they fail to disclose such material and verdicts are overturned, it undermines our confidence in the entire judicial system. It also costs the State wasted resources and it costs the defendant so much more in the lost years spent in prison.  Getting it right the first time is incredibly important in the criminal justice system.
Unfortunately, Brady violations occur more frequently than our society may expect.  It is extremely difficult for defendants to discover the information suppressed by prosecutors and unfortunately, the evidence is often discovered at the habeas stage of appeals when the defendant has already spent many years in prison.  This is why it is important for prosecutors to be more responsible and vigilant about disclosing evidence.  Although verdicts are overturned, little else is done to deter such violations from occurring.  Prosecutors often go unpunished, no matter how willful the violation. Prosecutors are immune from civil judgments and state bar associations rarely discipline prosecutors.  This creates a culture where winning is put above justice because there are few consequences for prosecutors who break the rules.  Judges often shield prosecutors in their opinions overturning convictions by not mentioning a prosecutor’s name and rarely does a state bar association bring disciplinary charges against a prosecutor for an abuse of power.
With this case, another Brady violation has been uncovered and a defendant unfairly imprisoned is freed, but has anything changed to prevent this from happening again?
- Melissa Cullmann
[1] No. SC91021 (Mo. Jan. 8, 2013) (en banc), available at http://www.courts.mo.gov/file.jsp?id=59104. The opinion has not been released for publication yet but can be found at State ex rel. Woodworth v. Denney, 2013 WL 85427 (Mo. 2013) (en banc).
[2] Id. at 1.
[3] Id. at 2.
[4] Id.
[5] Id. at 3.
[6] Id.
[7] Id. at 4.
[8] Id.
[9] Id.
[10] Id. at 5.
[11] Id.
[12] Id. at 6.
[13] Id.
[14] Id. at 6.
[15] Id. at 6.
[16] Id.
[17] Id.
[18] Id. at 7.
[19] Id.
[20] Id. at 8.
[21] Id.
[22] Id.
[23] Id.
[24] Id.
[25] Id.
[26] Id. at 9.
[27] Id.
[28] Id. at 31.
[29] Id. at 30.
[30] Id.
[31] Id.
[32] Id.
[33] Id.
[34] Id. at 31.
[35] 373 U.S. 83, 87 (1963).
[36] Id.
[37] Strickler v. Greene, 527 U.S. 263, 281-82 (1999).
[38] Id.
[39] Kyles v. Whitley, 514 U.S. 419, 434 (1995).
[40] Strickler, 527 U.S. at 280.
[41] Kyles, 513 U.S. at 434.
[42] Strickler, 527 U.S. at 281.
[43] Kyles, 514 U.S. at 437.
[44] Strickler, 527 U.S. at 281.
[45] Id.
[46] United States v. Bagley, 473 U.S. 667, 682 (1985).
[47] Kyles, 514 U.S. at 436.
[48] Id.
[49] Id.