The United States Supreme Court today ordered a new trial for Michael Wearry, who was sentenced to death in 2002 after Louisiana prosecutors failed to disclose evidence supporting his innocence.
Two years after the murder, Michael Wearry was implicated in the crime by a jailhouse informant, Sam Scott, who became the State’s key witness at trial despite having changed his story multiple times. The State presented no physical evidence at trial. The other main witness, Eric Brown, also was incarcerated but testified he received nothing from the prosecution in exchange for his testimony that he had seen Mr. Wearry with a man who looked like the victim on the night of the crime.
Mr. Wearry asserted that he was at a wedding reception that night, and three witnesses corroborated his account. The State told the jury not to believe those witnesses because they were related to Mr. Wearry, and Mr. Wearry was convicted and sentenced to death.
After Mr. Wearry’s conviction became final, evidence emerged that the prosecution had withheld relevant information that cast doubt on the credibility of the State’s witnesses. Police records showed that one of Scott’s fellow inmates reported that Scott said he wanted to “make sure [Wearry] get the needle cause he jacked over me” and another inmate told police that Scott instructed him to lie about having witnessed the murder. Contrary to the prosecutor’s assertions at trial, Brown had twice sought a deal in exchange for his testimony and was told the police would talk to the DA on his behalf. Finally, medical records showed that a key piece of Scott’s story could not have happened as he said it did.
In today’s decision, the Court wrote that the State’s case against Mr. Wearry “resembles a house of cards” — the only evidence directly tying Mr. Wearry to the murder “was Scott’s dubious testimony, corroborated by the similarly suspect testimony of Brown.” Because it determined that “[b]eyond doubt, the newly revealed evidence suffices to undermine confidence in Wearry’s conviction,” the Court reversed Mr. Wearry’s conviction.
Justice Alito, joined by Justice Thomas, dissented, in part because he believed the Court should have let the case proceed through the federal habeas corpus review process first. The majority wrote in response that the dissent’s approach would have “forc[ed] Wearry to endure yet more time on Louisiana’s death row in service of a conviction that is constitutionally flawed.”