The Supreme Court ruled on Monday that Louisiana prosecutors violated the Constitution when they withheld evidence in a murder case that could have spared a man from death row.
The justices threw out the 14-year-old conviction of Michael Wearry, whom the justices said was found guilty on evidence that was too flimsy to withstand the weight of due process, and sent the case back for a new trial.
"Beyond doubt, the newly revealed evidence suffices to undermine confidence in Wearry's conviction," the court said in the 6-2 ruling. "The State's trial evidence resembles a house of cards."
Wearry's conviction for the 1998 beating death of a teenaged pizza delivery driver was based heavily on the account of two jailhouse snitches who claimed to have connections to the crime or the victim. But their testimony was so inconsistent and marred by conflicts of interests that the Supreme Court, in its extensive review of the trial record, found it too "dubious" and "suspect" to credit it.
The facts of the case, including an alibi defense that Wearry couldn't prove, are labyrinthine at best.
But the court faulted the prosecution for failing to turn over police reports that cast doubt on the credibility of one of these witnesses, plus evidence that the other man simply wanted to testify against Wearry to cut his own prosecution deal.
In light of this and other withheld evidence, the Supreme Court ruled that Louisiana's actions violated "settled constitutional principles" and that Wearry should be granted a new trial.
The decision in the case, Wearry v. Cain, was "per curiam," which means it was unsigned by the justices and issued in the name of the entire court. The ruling also was a summary disposition -- a ruling reached without formal briefs and oral arguments from the two sides. (The court on Monday decided a separate case involving a lesbian mother's parental rights much the same way.)
Justice Samuel Alito, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, took issue with the court for deciding the Wearry case that way, and argued Louisiana should've been given an opportunity to more fully present its legal arguments.
"Questions that seem quite simple at first glance sometimes look very different after both sides are given a chance to make their case," Alito wrote in his dissent.
"Of course, this process means extra work for the Court," Alito wrote. "But it leads to better results, and it gives the losing side the satisfaction of knowing that at least its arguments have been fully heard."
The majority largely brushed aside Alito's concerns, and noted that there was nothing problematic or unprecedented about deciding the case summarily -- especially given Wearry's years as a condemned man for a crime he likely didn't commit.
"The alternative" to taking the case, the court said, "is forcing Wearry to endure yet more time on Louisiana's death row in service of a conviction that is constitutionally flawed."
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit that tracks the application of capital punishment across the country, Louisiana officials have been found to have engaged in misconduct in 10 death penalty cases where the defendants were ultimately exonerated.
This story has been updated to include information from the Death Penalty Information Center.