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United States v. Agurs

Supreme Court of the United States

Argued April 28, 1976 ; June 24, 1976

No. 75-491


  [*98]   [***347]   [**2395]  MR. JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

 After a brief interlude in an inexpensive motel room, respondent repeatedly stabbed James Sewell, causing his death. She was convicted of second-degree murder. The question before us is whether the prosecutor's failure  [*99]  to provide defense counsel with certain background information about Sewell, which would have tended to support the argument that respondent [****5]  acted in self-defense, deprived her of a fair trial under the rule of Brady  v. Maryland,  373 U.S. 83.

The answer to the question depends on (1) a review of the facts, (2) the significance of the failure of defense counsel to request the material, and (3) the standard by which the prosecution's failure to volunteer exculpatory material should be judged.

At about 4:30 p.m. on September 24, 1971, respondent, who had been there before, and Sewell, registered in a motel as man and wife. They were assigned a room without a bath. Sewell was wearing a bowie knife in a sheath, and carried another knife in his pocket. Less than two hours earlier, according to the testimony of his estranged wife, he had had $ 360 in cash on his person.

About 15 minutes later three motel employees heard respondent screaming for help. A forced entry into their room disclosed Sewell on top of respondent struggling for possession of the bowie knife. She was holding the knife; his bleeding hand grasped the blade; according to one witness he was trying to jam the blade into her chest. The employees separated the two and summoned the authorities. Respondent departed without [****6]  comment before they arrived. Sewell was dead on arrival at the hospital.

Circumstantial evidence indicated that the parties had completed an act of intercourse, that Sewell had then gone to the bathroom down the hall, and that the struggle occurred upon his return. The contents of his pockets were in disarray on the dresser and no money was found; the jury may have inferred that respondent took Sewell's money and that the fight started when Sewell re-entered the room and saw what she was doing.

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427 U.S. 97 *; 96 S. Ct. 2392 **; 49 L. Ed. 2d 342 ***; 1976 U.S. LEXIS 72 ****



Disposition: The court reversed a lower court's reversal of defendant's murder conviction because the prosecutor had no duty under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment to voluntarily disclose exculpatory matter absent a pretrial request for specific evidence.


cases, suppression, guilt, reasonable doubt, defense counsel, new trial, disclose, Appeals, misconduct, due process, exculpatory, confession, deliberate, innocence, withheld, notice, knife, newly discovered evidence, constitutional duty, deprived, perjury, exculpatory evidence, perjured testimony, specific request, fair trial, demonstrating, trial judge, nondisclosure, corruption, discovery

Constitutional Law, Fundamental Rights, Procedural Due Process, Scope of Protection, Criminal Law & Procedure, Discovery & Inspection, Brady Materials, General Overview, Preliminary Proceedings, Pretrial Motions & Procedures, Suppression of Evidence, Brady Claims, Torts, Defenses, Exculpatory Clauses, Intentional & Reckless Acts, Civil Procedure, Judicial Officers, Judges, Discovery Misconduct, Evidence, Admissibility, Procedural Matters, Rulings on Evidence, Appeals, Standards of Review, Harmless & Invited Error, Relevance, Preservation of Relevant Evidence, Exclusion & Preservation by Prosecutors