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The Supreme Court ordered a new trial this week for a Louisiana man charged with five brutal murders. The court found that prosecutors had failed to turn over statements that raised doubts about their only witness to the crime. The case is bringing new attention to prosecutor misconduct. That's led to the dismissals of other blockbuster convictions, including the corruption case against former senator Ted Stevens.
NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson reports.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: It's not every day that eight Supreme Court justices throw their weight behind a defendant convicted of busting into a New Orleans home, demanding drugs and money at gunpoint and leaving five dead bodies on the ground. But that's exactly what happened this week, where nearly every member of the High Court ruled Juan Smith should get a new trial. Kannon Shanmugam argued the case.
KANNON SHANMUGAM: Our client, Mr. Smith, was convicted based solely on the testimony of a single eyewitness and the Supreme Court, in essence, said that in a case of that variety where there are contradictory statements by that eyewitness, there is a duty to disclose.
JOHNSON: But the district attorney's office in Louisiana did not disclose police notes revealing the witness said he couldn't identify any of the perpetrators, exactly the opposite of what he testified to in court when he told the jury he recognized Juan Smith.
The failure to turn over those notes ran afoul of an almost 50 year old holding by the Supreme Court in a case known as Brady vs. Maryland. The Brady case has come to stand for something big in criminal law, that prosecutors are obliged to turn over any evidence that could help the defense in the interest of justice.
But the Supreme Court has heard a few cases now involving violations of Brady by the district attorney's office in New Orleans alone, not to mention the high profile debacle at the Justice Department, which walked away from the corruption conviction of the late Senator Ted Stevens in 2009 because prosecutors failed to turn over evidence about inconsistencies with their star witness.
Barry Pollack is a defense attorney in Washington.
BARRY POLLACK: In the run of the mill case, it's very hard to know that you didn't get something and so I certainly believe, from my experience, that the cases that we're reading about really are just the tip of the iceberg and that there are many more violations that courts and the public never learn about.
JOHNSON: Former prosecutors like Peter Zeidenberg say deciding what to share with the defense before a criminal trial can be a tricky process.
PETER ZEIDENBERG: It's just an inherently difficult decision for a prosecutor to make because you're obviously biased. You believe this defendant that you're prosecuting is guilty or you wouldn't be doing it.
JOHNSON: And ever since the Ted Stevens fiasco where the prosecutors themselves became the subject of a criminal investigation and a blistering report that could emerge later this month, there have been a lot of nervous people in the Justice Department worried about the consequences of making a bad decision.
Brandon Garrett is a law professor at the University of Virginia who studies wrongful convictions. He says prosecutors should just open their files, all of their files, before a trial.
BRANDON GARRETT: Forget about suing prosecutors later or overturning convictions based on this conduct. We want there to be full exchange of information from the beginning so that errors never happen in the first place.
JOHNSON: Lawyers for Juan Smith say there's an irony in his case. Most defendants in state court proceedings don't get the right to a lawyer after they've been convicted. But because Smith faced the death penalty for another crime where lawyers are also fighting for his innocence, he was entitled to lots of free legal help, help that uncovered the missing police files that cast down on the witness against him. Again, Washington defense lawyer Barry Pollack.
POLLACK: If you think about the way the system works, it's like you're playing a game of poker, but in this particular casino, the person dealing the cards gets to look at them first and decide which cards to give you.
JOHNSON: As for the district attorney in Louisiana, he says he'll press his luck and try Juan Smith all over again for the murders.
Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.