Thomas Stands Alone on 'Eyewitness' Case

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was the only dissenter standing in today's Supreme Court 8-1 decision to toss out a 1996 Louisiana quintuple life sentence. Juan Smith had been convicted for two separate home invasions that resulted in multiple homicides. The first, now voided, conviction led to five consecutive life sentences, and that case in turn was used to support Smith's death penalty sentence in a separate murder conviction.

The first conviction was thrown out by the court because prosecutors under then District Attorney Harry Connick (Yes, the singer's father) failed to share evidence with defense attorneys that cast serious doubt on the veracity of the lone eye witness testimony that was the essentially the prosecution's entire case against Smith. Larry Boatner, the only survivor of the 1995 "Roman Street massacre" during which five people were murdered in an apparent hunt for drugs and drug money, identified Smith as the lead member of the murder squad which stormed the house. But Boatner had twice told police before Smith's trial that he could not identify any of the assailants as he was "too scared to look at anybody." That admission was kept from defense. The failure to disclose such evidence defied 1963's Brady v. Maryland Supreme Court decision which requires that the government turn over evidence favorable to a defendant.

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In his brief majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts said the failure to disclose the notes of an investigating detective which included the witness's  early statements was enough on its own to overturn Smith's conviction in the quintuple murder. The N.O. DA's office argued that the jury would have seen the witness's initial statement as the words of a man traumatized while standing in a house with the bodies of five victims around him. When he said a few days later that he would not be able to identify the killer, he was clearly in fear of retaliation, Assistant District Attorney Donna Andrieu argued before the court in November.

But in today's majority decision the high court countered:"[T]he State's argument offers a reason that the jury could have disbelieved Boatner's undisclosed statements, but gives us no confidence that it would have done so." In other words, the assessment of which testimony was credible should have been left to a jury, not to the investigating detectives and local prosecutors.

In his dissent, Thomas argued that, as a whole, Boatner's statements were largely consistent, and that Smith "has not shown a reasonable probability that the jury would have reached a different verdict." An odd standard when in the American system it is the prosecution which must establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Two possibilities here: Smith is completely innocent and wrongly prosecuted in the first place or prosecutorial misconduct is allowing a multiple murderer to be half way to freedom. I'm not sure what this decision means for Smith's other conviction. Let's hope prosecutors had stronger evidence in that case.

See more on this here and here.

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david power
6 years 8 months ago
Eight angry men.I hope they get Peter Fonda to play Judge Thomas.

Beth Cioffoletti
6 years 8 months ago
I really don't know what to make of Clarence Thomas.  He appears bound and determined to make sure that nobody, ever, gets a break, even when they deserve it. 

Yet when I read his book, I was touched by many of the hardships he had endured as a child.

Like all of us, he is an exceedingly complex person, but it sure looks like there are issues with this man that cloud his ability to be an objective "judge".
Jim McCrea
6 years 8 months ago
Maybe Thomas' attitude is:  I had it rough so everyone else should, too.

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