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Turner v. United States

United States Supreme Court

June 22, 2017

CHARLES S. TURNER, ET AL., PETITIONERS
v.
UNITED STATES RUSSELL L. OVERTON, PETITIONER
v.
UNITED STATES

          Argued March 29, 2017

         ON WRITS OF CERTIORARI TO THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA COURT OF APPEALS

         Petitioners-Timothy Catlett, Russell Overton, Levy Rouse, Kelvin Smith, Charles and Christopher Turner, and Clifton Yarborough- and several others were indicted for the kidnaping, robbery, and murder of Catherine Fuller. At trial, the Government advanced the theory that Fuller was attacked by a large group of individuals. Its evidentiary centerpiece consisted of the testimony of Calvin Alston and Harry Bennett, who confessed to participating in a group attack and cooperated with the Government in return for leniency. Several other Government witnesses corroborated aspects of Alston's and Bennett's testimony. Melvin Montgomery testified that he was in a park among a group of people, heard someone say they were "going to get that one, " saw petitioner Overton pointing to Fuller, and saw several persons, including some petitioners, cross the street in her direction. Maurice Thomas testified that he saw the attack, identified some petitioners as participants, and later overheard petitioner Catlett say that they "had to kill her." Carrie Eleby and Linda Jacobs testified that they heard screams coming from an alley where a "gang of boys" was beating someone near a garage, approached the group, and saw some petitioners participating in the attack. Finally, the Government played a videotape of petitioner Yarborough's statement to detectives, describing how he was part of a large group that carried out the attack. None of the defendants rebutted the prosecution witnesses' claims that Fuller was killed in a group attack. The seven petitioners were convicted.

Long after their convictions became final, petitioners discovered that the Government had withheld evidence from the defense at the time of trial. In postconviction proceedings, they argued that seven specific pieces of withheld evidence were both favorable to the defense and material to their guilt under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83. This evidence included the identity of a man seen running into the alley after the murder and stopping near the garage where Fuller's body had already been found; the statement of a passerby who claimed to hear groans coming from a closed garage; and evidence tending to impeach witnesses Eleby, Jacobs, and Thomas. The D. C. Superior Court rejected petitioners' Brady claims, finding that the withheld evidence was not material. The D. C. Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: The withheld evidence is not material under Brady. Pp. 9-14.

(a) The Government does not contest petitioners' claim that the withheld evidence was "favorable to the defense." Petitioners and the Government, however, do contest the materiality of the undisclosed Brady information. Such "evidence is 'material' . . . when there is a reasonable probability that, had the evidence been disclosed, the result of the proceeding would have been different." Cone v. Bell, 556 U.S. 449, 469-470. "A 'reasonable probability' of a different result" is one in which the suppressed evidence " 'undermines confidence in the outcome of the trial.'" Kyles v. Whitley, 514 U.S. 419, 434. To make that determination, this Court "evaluate [s]" the withheld evidence "in the context of the entire record." United States v. Agurs, 427 U.S.97, 112. Pp. 9-11.
(b) Petitioners' main argument is that, had they known about the withheld evidence, they could have challenged the Government's basic group attack theory by raising an alternative theory, namely, that a single perpetrator (or two at most) had attacked Fuller. Considering the withheld evidence "in the context of the entire record, " Agurs, supra, at 112, that evidence is too little, too weak, or too distant from the main evidentiary points to meet Brady's standards.
A group attack was the very cornerstone of the Government's case, and virtually every witness to the crime agreed that Fuller was killed by a large group of perpetrators. It is not reasonably probable that the withheld evidence could have led to a different result at trial. Petitioners' problem is that their current alternative theory would have had to persuade the jury that both Alston and Bennett falsely confessed to being active participants in a group attack that never occurred; that Yarborough falsely implicated himself in that group attack and yet gave a highly similar account of how it occurred; that Thomas, an otherwise disinterested witness, wholly fabricated his story; that both Eleby and Jacobs likewise testified to witnessing a group attack that did not occur; and that Montgomery in fact did not see petitioners and others, as a group, identify Fuller as a target and leave together to rob her.
As for the undisclosed impeachment evidence, the record shows that it was largely cumulative of impeachment evidence petitioners already had and used at trial. This is not to suggest that impeachment evidence is immaterial with respect to a witness who has already been impeached with other evidence, see Wearry v. Cain, 577 U.S.___, ___ ___. But in the context of this trial, with respect to these witnesses, the cumulative effect of the withheld evidence is insufficient to undermine confidence in the jury's verdict, see Smith v. Cain, 565 U.S. 73, 75-76. Pp. 11-14.

116 A. 3d 894');">116 A. 3d 894, affirmed.

          BREYER, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and Kennedy, Thomas, Alito, and Sotomayor, JJ., joined. Ka-GAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which GlNSBURG, J., joined. GOR-SUCH, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the cases.

          OPINION

          BREYER JUSTICE.

         In Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), this Court held that the government violates the Constitution's Due Process Clause "if it withholds evidence that is favorable to the defense and material to the defendant's guilt or punishment." Smith v. Cain, 565 U.S. 73, 75 (2012) (emphasis added) (summarizing Brady holding). In 1985 the seven petitioners in these cases were tried together in the Superior Court for the District of Columbia for the kidnaping, armed robbery, and murder of Catherine Fuller. Long after petitioners' convictions became final, it emerged that the Government possessed certain evidence that it failed to disclose to the defense. The only question before us here is whether that withheld evidence was "material" under Brady. The D. C. Superior Court, after a 16-day evidentiary hearing, determined that the withheld evidence was not material. Catlett v. United States, Crim. No. 8617-FEL-84 etc. (Aug. 6, 2012), App. to Pet. for Cert, in No. 15-1503, pp. 84a, n. 4, 81a-131a. The D. C. Court of Appeals reviewed the record, reached the same conclusion, and affirmed the Superior Court. 116 A. 3d 894 (2015). After reviewing the record, we reach the same conclusion as did the lower courts.

         I

         In these fact-intensive cases, we set out here only a basic description of the record facts along with our reasons for reaching our conclusion. We refer those who wish more detail to the opinions of the lower courts. App. to Pet. for Cert, in No. 15-1503, at 81a-131a; 116 A. 3d 894');">116 A. 3d 894.

         A

         The Trial

         On March 22, 1985, a grand jury indicted the seven petitioners-Timothy Catlett, Russell Overton, Levy Rouse, Kelvin Smith, Charles Turner, Christopher Turner, and Clifton Yarborough-and several others for the kidnaping, robbery, and murder of Catherine Fuller. The evidence produced at their joint trial showed that on October 1, 1984, at around 4:30 p.m., Catherine Fuller left her home to go shopping. At around 6 p.m., William Freeman, a street vendor, found Fuller's body inside an alley garage between Eighth and Ninth Street N. E., just a few blocks from Fuller's home. See Appendix, infra (showing a map of the area in which the murder was committed). Fuller had been robbed, severely beaten, and sodomized with an object that caused extensive internal injuries.

         The Government advanced the theory at trial that Fuller had been attacked in the alley by a large group of individuals, including petitioners; codefendants Steve Webb, Alfonso Harris, and Felicia Ruffin; as well as by Calvin Alston and Harry Bennett. The Government's evidentiary centerpiece consisted of testimony by Alston and Bennett, who confessed to participating in the offense and who cooperated with the Government in return for leniency. Although the testimony of Alston and Bennett diverged on minor details, it was consistent in stating that, and describing how, Fuller was attacked by a sizable group of individuals, including petitioners and they themselves.

         Alston testified that at about 4:10 p.m. on the day of the murder, he arrived in a park located on H Street between Eighth and Ninth Streets. He said he found a group of people gathered there. It included petitioners Levy Rouse, Russell Overton, Christopher Turner, Charles Turner, Kelvin Smith, Clifton Yarborough, and Timothy Catlett, as well as several codefendants and others. Those in the group were talking and singing while Catlett was banging out a beat. Alston suggested "getting paid" by robbing someone. App. A467. Catlett, Overton, Rouse, Smith, Charles Turner, Christopher Turner, Yarborough, and several others agreed. Alston pointed at Catherine Fuller, who was walking on the other side of H Street near the corner of H and Eighth Streets. Those in the group said they were "game for getting paid." Id., at A471-A472. Alston, Rouse, Yarborough, and Charles Turner crossed H Street moving toward Eighth Street and followed Fuller down Eighth Street. The rest of the group crossed H Street and moved toward Ninth Street. When Alston's group approached Fuller, Charles Turner shoved her into an alley that runs between Eighth and Ninth Streets. Charles Turner, Rouse, and Alston began punching Fuller. They were soon joined by Christopher Turner, Smith, and others. All of them continued to hit and kick Fuller until she fell to the ground. Rouse and Charles Turner then carried Fuller to the center of the alley and dropped her in front of a garage located at the point where the alley joins another, perpendicular alley that runs toward I Street. Someone dragged Fuller into the garage. Alston, Rouse, Charles Turner, Overton, Yarborough, and Catlett followed. Others stood outside. Members of the group tore Fuller's clothes off and struggled over her change purse. Overton and Charles Turner then held Fuller's legs, and Alston, Catlett, Harris, and Yarborough stood around her while Rouse sodomized her with a foot-long pipe. Shortly after, the group dispersed and left the alley.

         Harry Bennett's testimony was similar. Bennett also described a group attack. He said that he had gone to the H Street park, where he saw Rouse, Overton, Christopher Turner, Smith, Catlett, and others gathered. Alston was talking to the group about "[g]etting paid" and said "let's go get that lady." Id., at A368-A370. At that point Alston, Rouse, Overton, and Webb crossed H Street and approached Fuller, while Catlett, Christopher Turner, Charles Turner, and Harris followed in a separate group. Bennett added that he himself went to the corner of Eighth and H Streets to watch for police. He then went into the alley and joined the group in kicking and beating Fuller. He testified that at least 12 people were there, with some beating Fuller and others watching or picking up her jewelry. Overton then dragged Fuller into the garage, and Bennett, Rouse, Christopher Turner, Charles Turner, Catlett, Smith, Harris, and Webb followed, as did some "girls." Id., at A402-A405. Alston and Steve Webb held Fuller's legs, and Rouse sodomized her with a pole. The group then dispersed from the garage and alley.

         The Government presented several other witnesses who corroborated aspects of Alston's and Bennett's testimony, including the fact that Fuller was attacked by a group. Melvin Montgomery testified that he was in the H Street park on the afternoon of the murder. He saw Overton, Catlett, Rouse, Charles Turner, and others gathered there. The group was being noisy and singing a song about need- ing money. Somebody then said they were "going to get that one, " and Montgomery saw that Overton was pointing to a woman standing on the corner of Eighth Street. Id., at 77-79. Overton, Catlett, Rouse, Charles Turner, and others crossed H Street. Some headed toward Eighth Street while others went toward Ninth Street. Montgomery did not follow them.

         Maurice Thomas, then 14 years old, testified that he witnessed the attack itself. Thomas lived in the neighborhood and knew many of the defendants. As he was walking home, he glanced down the Eighth Street alley and saw a group surrounding Fuller. Thomas saw Catlett pat Fuller down and then hit her. He then saw everyone in the group join in hitting her. Thomas said he knew Catlett, Yarborough, Rouse, Charles Turner, Christopher Turner, and Smith and recognized them in the group. Thomas heard Fuller calling for help. He ran home where he found his aunt, who told him not to tell anyone what he saw. Later that day, Thomas saw ...


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