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Law School Case Brief

United States v. Agurs - 427 U.S. 97, 96 S. Ct. 2392 (1976)

Rule:

If a prosecutor fails to voluntarily disclose exculpatory evidence, and if the omitted evidence creates a reasonable doubt that did not otherwise exist, constitutional error has been committed under the Due Process Clause of U.S. Const. amend. V. The omission must be evaluated in the context of the entire record. If there is no reasonable doubt about guilt whether or not the additional evidence is considered, there is no justification for a new trial. On the other hand, if the verdict is already of questionable validity, additional evidence of relatively minor importance might be sufficient to create a reasonable doubt.

Facts:

Three months after Defendant Agurs had been convicted of second-degree murder in a jury trial in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, defense counsel moved for a new trial, asseringd that the murder victim had a prior criminal record, which would have demonstrated the victim's violent character, thus supporting the defense argument that Agurs had acted in self-defense. The Defense counsel further argued that the prosecutor had failed to disclose the victim's record to the defense, and there was recent authority that such evidence was admissible even if not known to the defendant. The District Court denied the new trial motion, but rejected the government's argument that there was no duty to tender the victim's criminal record to the defense in the absence of an appropriate request, holding that even if it were assumed that the evidence was admissible, nevertheless it was not sufficiently material. The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia reversed. The United States petitioned for certiorari review.

Issue:

In the absence of a request from defendant, was defendant's right to due process impaired by the failure of the prosecution to tender the victim’s criminal record to the defense? 

Answer:

No.

Conclusion:

The Court noted that for purposes of an accused's right to a fair trial under the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment for federal criminal trials and under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment for state criminal trials, a prosecutor had the constitutional duty to volunteer exculpatory matter to the defense, the duty of which is governed by a standard under which constitutional error is committed if evidence omitted by a prosecutor created a reasonable doubt about guilt. However,  the Court averred that the prosecutor's failure to inform the defense counsel about the victim's criminal record did not deprive the accused of a fair trial under the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment, since the victim's criminal record had not been requested and did not arguably give rise to any inference of perjury. Moreover, the trial judge, after considering the omitted evidence in the context of the entire record, remained convinced of Agurs' guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and the trial judge's firsthand appraisal of the record was thorough and entirely reasonable.

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