Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Thinking about Kyles v. Whitley

I went to a California Public Defenders Association conference this weekend. It was the first one I had been to in a long, LONG time. It was in Palm Springs, and I had a really good time. It was their 41st annual convention. The speakers were good the first day, but the next day they were AWESOME. I was really impressed with Brian Waite, a deputy PD from Orange County. His presentation on opening statements and closing arguments was simply magical. This man had a gift.

But the first day's presentation by DPD Charles Denton, of Alameda County, I think, was an excellent hands-on presentation. It was great because he talked discovery, which is something that defense attorneys like myself never get enough good insight on. The more discovery we get, the more triable a case can become. The less discovery, the worse.

Charles Denton did something that there never seems to be enough of - he talked extensively about a particular case: Kyles v. Whitley, 514 U.S. 419 (1995). If you haven't read Kyles v. Whitley, read it. You should also read In re Brown (1998) 17 Cal.4th 873, where Justice Janice Rogers Brown, now on a federal appellate court somewhere, really applied the holding of Kyles v. Whitley. The key holding of Kyles v. Whitley is the fact that the DA heads something called the "prosecution team" which includes the police and other entities that, while the prosecution may not control, the prosecution is certainly responsible for. Per Kyles v. Whitley, the prosecutor must seek out exculpatory evidence that the "prosecution team" holds.

The backstory to Kyles v. Whitley is simply amazing. Long story short (if that is even possible now), Curtis Lee Kyles is charged with murdering a woman, and the key witness is a guy called "Beanie." The problem is that "Beanie" also has a motive for the murder, and his whereabouts and actions are very questionable. It is also kind of apparent that he very well could have planted every bit of evidence used against Kyles, with the exception of some lineups by witnesses that end up being coaxed by the cops to testify falsely.

The first trial, in 1984, hangs. In the 2nd trial, Kyles is convicted and gets death. It takes 11 years to get the U.S. Supreme Court, where a bare 5-4 majority reverses his conviction. Lots and lots of evidence was hidden by the police, and it trickles out over the decade since Kyles was convicted. The majority concludes, in a lengthy opinion, that the suppressed evidence, as a whole, would have made too much of a difference in the trial. A great case, everyone should read it.

After the presentation I talked to Charles Denton and shared some of the backstory about Curtis Lee Kyles, that I mangled a bit at the time. I will share it with you now. After the 1995 U.S. Supreme Court opinion, Louisiana tried Kyles again, and there was a hung jury. They tried him again, and again there was a hung jury. One last trial, and it was again a hung jury. Thus, 5 trials in all, 3 of them after the death sentence was reversed. Louisiana finally tired of this, and dismissed the murder case against Kyles. He walked out of prison in 1998. He was on death row for 18 years. He was within 18 hours of being executed at one point. At every single trial, NEW discovery came out that the police had not disclosed. In other words, the police and DA hid evidence before every single one of 5 trials. The final analysis of the case is that it is pretty likely that Beanie was the actual killer, although law enforcement in Louisiana still think otherwise.

One final note. The dissent in Kyles v. Whitley was written by Justice Scalia, joined by (now deceased) Chief Justice Rehnquist, and Justices Kennedy and Thomas. Here is a tiny snippet of what Justice Scalia wrote, which I find fascinating in how wrong he and his fellow dissenters got the case:

"In any analysis of this case, the desperate implausibility of the theory that petitioner put before the jury must be firmly kept in mind. . . . The Court concludes that it is reasonably probable the undisclosed witness interviews would have persuaded the jury of petitioner's implausible theory regarding the incriminating physical evidence. I think neither of those conclusions is remotely true, but even if they were the Court would still be guilty of a fallacy in declaring victory on each implausibility in turn, and thus victory on the whole, without considering the infinitesmal probability of the jury's swallowing the entire concoction of implausibility squared."

Hmmm. In other words, there is NO WAY that this guy culd ever win, so why are we reversing his conviction? Oops.

Dennis R. Wilkins
Guest PD Blogger


Anonymous said...

Good to see this weblog active again. I read some other material on the case and it's as you said - fascinating. Made me ever so grateful that I'm white, middle-class, etc (and thus unlikely to find myself in such straits) and angry that such short shrift is given defendants (prejudiced juries, corrupt cops, production-line justice).

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