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Fourth Circuit Vacates Brady Claim Denial in Capital Case and Rebukes Prosecutors

by Richard Resch

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia abused its discretion in dismissing Anthony Juniper’s Brady claim without holding an evidentiary hearing.

This case is discussed at greater length than is customary for case coverage in CLN. The reason for the departure from the norm is that it is especially noteworthy for at least three reasons: (1) any instance of federal habeas reversal is rare, (2) the opinion serves as an exemplar of Brady claim analysis, and (3) the Court issued a remarkable rebuke to the state’s trial and post-conviction legal team for persistently violating its Brady obligations.

On January 16, 2004, Keshia Stephens and three relatives were murdered inside their Norfolk, Virginia home. On the morning of the killings, Juniper went to Stephens’ home to retrieve his belongings, where he was heard arguing with her.

Based upon statements made in 911 calls about hearing shots fired, together with witness statements, prosecutors believed that the murders occurred sometime before 12:45 p.m. Juniper arrived at the home at about 10:20 a.m. and left prior to 12:45 p.m. His fingerprints were on a knife used to stab Stephens, which was left at the crime scene, and his DNA was on a cigarette butt discarded by the front door.

With that evidence, Juniper was arrested and tried. On April 7, 2004, a jury convicted him on four counts of capital murder and sentenced him to death. He appealed to the Supreme Court of Virginia, which affirmed his conviction and sentence.

On March 2, 2007, he filed a petition with the Supreme Court of Virginia for state collateral relief, alleging, among other claims, that the prosecution failed to disclose material exculpatory evidence in violation of its Brady obligations. He also asked the high court to order the prosecution to turn over “all taped, typed, or otherwise memorialized interviews or statements taken in connection with” the investigation to his habeas counsel. The prosecution opposed Juniper’s discovery request, claiming that it had “provided everything required by law.” On March 4, 2011, the Supreme Court of Virginia denied his request for discovery and dismissed his habeas petition.

In 2011, Detective Glenn Ford, the lead investigator in Juniper’s case, was convicted in federal court for taking bribes from drug defendants in exchange for falsely advising judges and prosecutors that the defendants had cooperated in homicide investigations. During Ford’s prosecution, it was revealed that some of his investigative notes concerning Juniper’s case had not been turned over to Juniper’s counsel. The notes in question included references to potentially exculpatory statements made by two of the victims’ neighbors to investigators immediately after the murders.

Juniper’s habeas counsel learned that Wendy Roberts told investigators that on the day of the murders she heard “a series of loud pops” and a man coming down the stairs from the victims’ residence a few minutes afterwards. He got into an older “large four-door car” and drove off alone. Roberts advised that this occurred sometime between 1:00 and 2:30 p.m. and that a large number of police officers rushed to the scene a few minutes later.

Jason Roberts, Wendy’s son, stated that he heard “gunshots” and saw a man running to a car, getting into the driver’s seat, and speeding away. Within about five minutes, over a dozen police officers arrived, which official records showed occurred at about 2:20 p.m.

The statements contradicted key elements of the prosecution’s theory of the case. The prosecution asserted that the murders occurred before 12:45 p.m., and its star witnesses at trial testified that Juniper left the scene in the passenger seat of a car driven by a woman.

Based on the Roberts’ statements and Ford’s investigative notes, Juniper once again filed a motion with the Supreme Court of Virginia seeking additional factual development related to the newly uncovered exculpatory evidence. And once again, the high court denied his request.

Having exhausted his state remedies, Juniper filed a federal petition for writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 in federal district court on January 30, 2012. The petition asserted several bases for relief, including a claim under Brady with respect to the withheld Roberts evidence. Juniper sought extensive discovery related to that evidence.

The prosecution opposed the request and once more claimed that Juniper “received all the discovery that state and constitutional law required at his trial.” Unbelievably, the prosecution’s purported rationale for not turning the Roberts evidence over to Juniper’s trial counsel was because it directly contradicted the prosecution’s version of events. But that is precisely why the evidence is exculpatory and thus falls within the ambit of Brady material. The prosecution’s implausible explanation utterly emasculates Brady.

The district court granted limited discovery and ordered the production of specific types of documents. Upon review, Juniper’s attorneys discovered more exculpatory evidence that pointed to another suspect and asked the court for leave to conduct further documentary and deposition discovery. The court denied the request concluding that although exculpatory evidence was improperly withheld, it failed to satisfy Brady’s materiality requirement. The court made its ruling without holding an evidentiary hearing. Juniper appealed.

The Fourth Circuit concluded that “the district court reversibly erred in ruling on the merits of Petitioner’s Brady claim without holding an evidentiary hearing,” so the Court did not reach the claim that the district court incorrectly denied the Brady claim on the merits.

The appellate court began its thorough analysis by explaining that a petitioner who has diligently pursued his or her habeas corpus claim in state court is entitled to an evidentiary hearing in federal court, “on facts not previously developed in the state court proceedings, if the facts alleged would have entitled him to relief, and if he satisfies one of the six factors enumerated” by the U.S. Supreme Court in Townsend v. Sain, 372 U.S. 293 (1963).

A petitioner must seek an evidentiary hearing in state court to constitute the diligent pursuit of his or her habeas corpus claim at the state level. The Fourth Circuit determined that Juniper clearly satisfied this standard, observing that he repeatedly pressed his Brady claim and unsuccessfully sought further discovery and an evidentiary hearing on the Roberts material.

The Court noted that the parties agreed that Juniper satisfied at least one of the Townsend factors, viz., the state courts denied him the opportunity to develop the facts underlying his Brady claim and dismissed it without addressing the merits.

The determinative question, then, was whether Juniper alleged facts sufficient for relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), the standard is whether the petition states “a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” In making that determination, the facts must be construed in the light most favorable to the petitioner.

In order to prevail on a Brady claim, the petitioner must establish the evidence at issue was: (1) exculpatory, (2) suppressed by the state, and (3) material—reasonable probability that the result of the trial would have been different had the evidence been properly disclosed.

The Fourth Circuit stated that the first prong was clearly satisfied; the evidence at issue was undoubtedly exculpatory because it contradicted key aspects of the prosecution’s case. The Court proceeded to discuss in great detail how each item of withheld evidence undermined the case against Juniper. As to the second prong, the Court concluded that there was ample evidence in the record that the prosecution deliberately suppressed the exculpatory evidence at issue. The Court observed the fact the lead prosecutor “fundamentally misunderstood his obligation under Brady” provided further evidence that exculpatory and impeaching evidence were improperly withheld.

The district court ruled that Juniper met the first two prongs but failed the third prong of materiality. The Fourth Circuit flatly rejected that conclusion and explained that the lower court did not apply the proper legal standard for at least three reasons. The Court methodically examined the lower court’s flawed analysis in exacting detail. First, the district court failed to construe facts in the light most favorable to Juniper. Second, the court failed to properly account for the impeachment value of the withheld evidence. Finally, the court improperly made credibility determinations based upon the written record.

The appellate court determined that had the improperly withheld evidence been turned over to the defense it could have “put the whole case in such a different light as to undermine confidence in the verdict.” Accordingly, Juniper satisfied the materiality prong of Brady for purposes of entitlement to an evidentiary hearing.

Based upon its meticulous analysis of the governing law and application to the facts in this case, the Fourth Circuit held that the district court abused its discretion in dismissing Juniper’s Brady claim without holding an evidentiary hearing. The Court vacated the district court’s decision on that issue and remanded.

In a rare move for a U.S. Court of Appeals, the Fourth Circuit made its displeasure with the prosecution team clear, describing it as exhibiting a “troubling disregard of its obligations under Brady….” In footnote 7, it did so even more bluntly: “We have repeatedly rebuked the Commonwealth’s Attorney and his deputies and assistants for failing to adhere to their obligations under Brady…. We find it troubling that … officials in the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office continue to stake out positions plainly contrary to their obligations under the Constitution.”

While the public rebuke is refreshing and warranted in this case, it is not enough. Prosecutors who violate their ethical and legal obligations in ensuring a fair trial must be held accountable. The consequences of prosecutors’ “troubling” behavior can literally be a matter of life and death, as is the case for Juniper. See: Juniper v. Zook, 876 F.3d 551 (4th Cir. 2017). 

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