In 1984, a 48-year-old mother of six was brutally sexually assaulted and beaten to death in a Washington, D.C., alleyway Prosecutors claimed she had been confronted by a gang of violent teenagers. It was one of the first cases in the U.S. in which police alleged that ferocious crews of young men were roaming the streets, ready to viciously assault innocent people.
In 1985, eight neighborhood friends between the ages of 16 and 21 were convicted of rape and first degree murder, based largely upon eyewitness testimony. In 2012, appellate attorneys looked into the case and found that all the eyewitnesses had recanted.
Even more important, during the police investigation, a different eyewitness described seeing a single person, not a group of teens, in the alleyway around the time the crime occurred. Furthermore, in 1992, a man meeting this eyewitness’s description was convicted of murdering another woman in the area in a very similar way.
The police and prosecutors had that information at the time of the trial, according to the defendants. If so, fairness and the interests of justice should have compelled them to share it with the defense.
In fact, whenever police and prosecutors come across exculpatory evidence — information that could help exonerate a defendant — they are required to turn it over to the defense. In the 1963 case Brady v. Maryland, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that they have to turn over pro-defense evidence “where the evidence is material either to guilt or to punishment.”
Failure to turn over exculpatory evidence is a violation of the defendant’s due process rights. When the issue is successfully brought on appeal the conviction (or sentence, as appropriate) must be overturned.
It’s difficult to say what the D.C. police and prosecutors were thinking in 1984. It’s possible they didn’t want to “muddy the waters” with an eyewitness who disagreed with their other witnesses. Whatever their motivation, the remedy called for in Brady v. Maryland is a reversal of all eight convictions.
Even if the Supreme Court rules in their favor, six of these defendants have already spent over 30 years in prison. One was paroled and another passed away in prison. Moreover, they could be tried again.
If you have been arrested, whether it’s for a sex offense or any crime, you can’t afford to get railroaded. You need a knowledgeable, committed defense lawyer who won’t leave any stone unturned in preparing your case.