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United States v. Agurs

Supreme Court of the United States

Argued April 28, 1976 ; June 24, 1976

No. 75-491

Case Summary

Procedural Posture

The United States appealed a judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that reversed defendant's murder conviction on the ground that the prosecutor's failure to disclose the victim's prior criminal record violated the Due Process Clause.

Overview

Defendant was convicted of murdering a man by stabbing him with his own knife. Defense counsel made no discovery request of the prosecutor. The prosecutor failed to voluntarily disclose the victim's past criminal record, which included offenses for assault and carrying a deadly weapon. 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 U.S. Const. amend. V, to voluntarily disclose exculpatory matter absent a pretrial request for specific evidence. In the context of the entire record the omitted evidence was not "material," i.e. it did not create a reasonable doubt that did not otherwise exist. The court held that the trial court employed the proper standard of "materiality," considered the omitted evidence in the context of the entire record, and properly ruled that the evidence supported a finding that defendant was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Therefore, the prosecutor's failure to tender the evidence to the defense did not deprive defendant of a fair trial as guaranteed by the Due Process Clause.

Outcome

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.

LexisNexis® Headnotes

 

 

Constitutional Law > ... > Fundamental Rights > Procedural Due Process > Scope of Protection

Criminal Law & Procedure > ... > Discovery & Inspection > Brady Materials > General Overview

Criminal Law & Procedure > Preliminary Proceedings > Pretrial Motions & Procedures > Suppression of Evidence

HN1  Procedural Due Process, Scope of Protection

Representatives of a state may not suppress substantial material evidence, but they are under no duty to report sua sponte to the defendant all that they learn about the case and about their witnesses. There is no constitutional requirement that the prosecution make a complete and detailed accounting to the defense of all police investigatory work on a case. The mere possibility that an item of undisclosed information might have helped the defense, or might have affected the outcome of the trial, does not establish "materiality" in the constitutional sense.

 

Criminal Law & Procedure > ... > Discovery & Inspection > Brady Materials > Brady Claims

Torts > ... > Defenses > Exculpatory Clauses > Intentional & Reckless Acts

Constitutional Law > ... > Fundamental Rights > Procedural Due Process > General Overview

Constitutional Law > ... > Fundamental Rights > Procedural Due Process > Scope of Protection

Criminal Law & Procedure > ... > Discovery & Inspection > Brady Materials > General Overview

Criminal Law & Procedure > Preliminary Proceedings > Pretrial Motions & Procedures > Suppression of Evidence

Torts > ... > Defenses > Exculpatory Clauses > General Overview

HN2  Brady Materials, Brady Claims

The obligation of the state to voluntarily disclose exculpatory evidence under the Due Process Clause of U.S. Const. amend. V is not measured by the moral culpability, or the willfulness, of the prosecutor. If evidence highly probative of innocence is in his file, he should be presumed to recognize its significance even if he has actually overlooked it. Conversely, if evidence actually has no probative significance at all, no purpose would be served by requiring a new trial simply because an inept prosecutor incorrectly believed he was suppressing a fact that would be vital to the defense. If the suppression of evidence results in constitutional error, it is because of the character of the evidence, not the character of the prosecutor.

 

Civil Procedure > Judicial Officers > Judges > General Overview

Criminal Law & Procedure > ... > Discovery & Inspection > Discovery Misconduct > General Overview

Evidence > Admissibility > Procedural Matters > Rulings on Evidence

Criminal Law & Procedure > Appeals > Standards of Review > General Overview

Criminal Law & Procedure > ... > Standards of Review > Harmless & Invited Error > General Overview

HN3  Judicial Officers, Judges

The judge should not order a new trial every time he is unable to characterize a nondisclosure as harmless under the customary harmless-error standard. Under that standard when error is present in the record, the reviewing judge must set aside the verdict and judgment unless his "conviction is sure that the error did not influence the jury, or had but very slight effect." Unless every nondisclosure is regarded as automatic error, the constitutional standard of materiality must impose a higher burden on the defendant.

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

UNITED STATES v. AGURS

Prior History:  [1]  CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA CIRCUIT

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.