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California Court of Appeal Overturns Child Sex Abuse Convictions Based on Prosecution’s Violation of Brady Obligations by Withholding Witness Impeachment Evidence

After he was convicted, Brandon Justin Lamar Stewart was sentenced to 13 years’ imprisonment. The complaining witness, Doe 1, is his cousin. Stewart was initially also charged with two counts of lewd acts against another cousin, Doe 2, when she was 12 and 15 in 2012 and 2015. Those charges were dropped.

During initial discovery, the prosecutor gave the defense an investigator’s notes indicating Doe 2 had been the victim of lewd and lascivious acts with a child in 2012, when she was 12, and the matter had been investigated and closed that year. Doe 2 told the investigator she was spending the night at a cousin’s house when she “woke up in the middle of the night” and found “a man lying down next to her” who was “touching her” and “made her touch him.” The notes indicated that this may have been the incident described in a 2012 police report.

After the prosecution notified the defense of its intent to call Doe 2 as a witness to show Stewart’s propensity for sexually assaulting girls, the defense requested a copy of the 2012 police report from the prosecutor. The prosecutor responded that the suspect and victim were minors whose privacy was protected under the California Welfare and Institutions Code § 827, prohibiting disclosure. The trial court backed the prosecution and told the defense to file a petition with the juvenile court under § 827 for disclosure of the report. Defense counsel did so the next day.

Soon after the trial began four weeks later, defense counsel told the court that the juvenile court had not yet responded and again requested that the trial court review the police report, which was in the prosecutor’s file. The court refused to do so, and the case proceeded with Doe 2 testifying to multiple instances of oral copulation, vaginal penetration, and anal sex with Stewart in 2012. Notably, Doe 2 had not reported this in 2012 but waited until she heard of Doe l’s allegations against Stewart in 2016.

During deliberations, the jury had questions about inconsistencies in both cousins’ testimony compared to their preliminary hearing testimony and statements to the police and by other relatives. Four days after the jury convicted Stewart, defense counsel received a redacted Child Protective Services (“CPS”) report from the juvenile court regarding the 2012 investigation of Doe 2’s allegations of forced sexual conduct against a minor cousin during which she acknowledged years of consensual sexual relations with the cousin. The cousin and Doe 2’s brother said she initiated sexual relations, and all three made many conflicting statements. The investigators determined Doe 2’s allegations of forced sexual relations were unfounded. The details of many of the allegations were the same as those Doe 2 made against Stewart. Further, the allegations against the minor cousin were reported in 2012, when they were alleged to have occurred, but no allegations were made against Stewart then. The prosecutor stipulated that the police report information was similar to that in the CPS report.

Defense counsel filed a motion for new trial based upon newly discovered evidence and a violation of Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), because the prosecution withheld exculpatory information. The court denied the motion. With the aid of court-appointed attorney Marylou Hillberg, Stewart appealed.

The Court of Appeal noted that, under Pennsylvania v. Ritchie, 480 U.S. 39 (1987), a state’s confidentiality statute does not trump a defendant’s right to disclosure of material exculpatory evidence, but an in camera review of the material sufficed. Under J.E. v. Superior Court, 223 Cal.App.4th 1329 (2014), and People v. Superior Court, 61 Cal.4th 696 (2015), juvenile courts are responsible for conducting a Brady review of confidential juvenile files, and the prosecutor’s disclosure of the existence of Brady material in confidential records, combined with an in camera review, satisfies Brady.

With that in mind, the prosecutor did not inform Stewart of the existence of Brady material in the juvenile records. “The notes the prosecutor produced suggested the prior molestation incident was far less relevant than” the police and CPS reports revealed, specifically that Doe 2 had made prior, possibly conflicting allegations of sexual abuse by another cousin – including the same acts she later accused Stewart of perpetrating – and had acknowledged having engaged in consensual sexual acts with the cousin for three or four years between the ages of 8 or 9 and 11, the Court noted. Further, both her brother and cousin told police she had participated willingly, and her allegations about the earlier abuse were determined to be “unfounded.” Additionally, the reports showed Doe 2’s repeated insinuation that she had never engaged in sexual activities prior to the assault by Stewart to be disingenuous. Therefore, the Court determined that the prosecution was obligated to disclose the material under Brady.

The Court held that the withheld evidence is material because Doe 2 was a key prosecution witness, and there is a reasonable probability of a different outcome had it been disclosed. In short, its absence compromised Stewart’s right to a fair trial. Further, the trial court erred in denying the motion for new trial.

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Related legal case

People v. Stewart

 

 

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