A convicted killer was entitled to an evidentiary hearing on whether he was prejudiced and denied a fair trial when the postconviction evidence he presented showed that the state failed to disclose evidence favorable to the defense, ruled the Court of Appeals.
The defendant was convicted of first-degree manslaughter and second-degree felony murder after killing a man in a bar fight. He claimed he acted in self-defense because the man had bragged about spending time in prison for a double murder and threatened the defendant with what he believed was a weapon.
Following the conviction, evidence of the victim’s alternative identity and violent past was discovered. The defendant argued that the newly discovered evidence — which the prosecution had wrongfully failed to disclose — entitled him to a new trial.
A Ramsey County District Court judge disagreed and denied the defendant’s petition for postconviction relief.
But the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the case back to the trial judge to hold an evidentiary hearing on the issue of whether the prosecutor’s failure to disclose the evidence denied the defendant a fair trial.
“Because it appears ‘reasonably probable’ that this evidence may have made a difference in the outcome of [the defendant’s] trial, [the defendant’s] right to a fair trial may have been violated,” wrote Judge Roger Klaphake.
The 12-page decision, Gorman v. State of Minnesota, is Minnesota Lawyer No. CA-1301-00.
St. Paul attorney Deborah K. Ellis, who represented the defendant on appeal, said that the decision is a good reminder to prosecutors that they have to be very vigilant in turning over all favorable or exculpatory evidence to the defense. “It’s full disclosure — that’s the way it works,” Ellis observed. “[And] they didn’t play fair.”
Ellis was disappointed, however, that the appellate court did not outright order a new trial. “[The Court of Appeals] already found that all the information known to the police would have been helpful to the defense.” She added that many of the same police officers involved in the trial had contact with the victim within four months of death and knew of his violent past, yet no one told the defense.
Phil Carruthers, the Director of the Prosecution Division for the Ramsey County Attorneys Office, said only that the state disagrees with the result and is looking at the possibility of seeking discretionary review of the decision by the Minnesota Supreme Court.
Bar fight gone bad
Defendant Michael Gorman was charged with first-degree manslaughter and second-degree felony murder for the October 1993 death of a man in a St. Paul bar. At his 1994 trial, the defendant testified that he threw a punch at the victim, but asserted that he was acting in self-defense. According to his testimony, he believed the victim, who was boasting that he had just spent 18 years in prison for a double murder, was threatening the defendant with what the defendant believed was a gun or other weapon. The convictions and 450-month sentence were affirmed on appeal.
During a subsequent civil action, the defendant’s civil attorney discovered that the victim, who had been referred to at the defendant’s criminal trial only as Willie Thomas, was also known by another name — Willie Dixon. An investigator hired by the defendant’s current attorney uncovered other evidence about Willie Dixon including two prior convictions in Missouri for murder and St. Paul police reports indicating that in the months immediately preceding his death, the police had arrested or cited Dixon for various crimes, including assault, possession of drugs, and driving under the influence. At least one of these reports referred to “Willie THOMAS, AKA Willie DIXON.” The officer who prepared this report was one of the investigating officers in the defendant’s case and testified at the defendant’s Rasmussen hearing.
Other evidence discovered by the investigator included a facsimile sent by the St. Paul police department to the medical examiner’s office several days after the victim’s death, in which the department identified the victim as “Dixon, Willie Henry,” alias “Thomas, Willie NMN.” The investigator also discovered a memorandum from a Ramsey County probation officer to a Ramsey County District Court judge less than two weeks after the victim’s death, in which the officer notified the judge that Willie Dixon, whom the judge had placed on probation in September, “died on October 17th as a result of a bar fight in St. Paul” and that “this matter should be discharged and the file closed at this time.”
On Jan. 11, 2000, the defendant filed this petition for postconviction relief, arguing that he is entitled to a new trial because, among other things, newly discovered evidence, which the state failed to disclose, regarding the victim’s true identity, prior murder convictions, prior assaultive conduct, and prior contacts with St. Paul police, would have enhanced the defendant’s credibility at trial and supported his claim of self-defense.
In support of his petition, the defendant submitted three affidavits, one from the investigator hired by appellant’s current attorney, another from his attorney, and a third from his trial attorney, who has since died. With these affidavits, the defendant submitted the documents discovered by the investigator, including the records of the victim’s 1976 Missouri murder convictions and St. Paul police records.
In the state’s memorandum in opposition it argued that the court may summarily dismiss or deny the petition because the defendant failed to show conclusively that he is entitled to relief. The state submitted no additional documents or affidavits.
On Feb. 10, 2000, the postconviction court summarily denied the petition, finding that the defendant’s “claims are without merit.” This appeal followed.
Klaphake began by explaining that a defendant is allowed to seek postconviction relief to vacate and set aside a judgment or grant a new trial, but that he has the burden to show facts warranting this relief.
An evidentiary hearing is required in a postconviction proceeding unless the petition and the files and records of the proceeding conclusively show that the petitioner is entitled to no relief, Klaphake observed. At the hearing, the petitioner must show that there are substantial facts in dispute and that his version of the events, if true, entitles him to relief.
The defendant argued that he was entitled to a new trial because the state failed to disclose material evidence about the victim that would have significantly enhanced the defendant’s credibility and supported his claim of self-defense. Under the facts of the case, Klaphake noted, the defendant’s allegations may be analyzed either as a claim of newly discovered evidence or a violation of the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision Brady v. Maryland.
“Because the ultimate standard of materiality applicable to a Brady violation should be more lenient to the defense that the standard applied to newly discovered evidence, we will discuss and analyze [the defendant’s] claims as a Brady violation,” wrote Klaphake.
In Brady, the Supreme Court found that the state has an affirmative duty to disclose evidence that is favorable and material
to the defense. In Minnesota, Klaphake noted, this duty is embodied in Minn. R. Crim. P. 9.01 and extends to members of the prosecution staff, as well as others participating in the investigation or evaluation of the case.
Thus, Klaphake observed, a true Brady violation consists of three components:
• the evidence at issue must be favorable to the accused, either because it is exculpatory, or because it is impeaching;
• the evidence must have been suppressed by the state, either willfully or inadvertently; and
• prejudice must have ensued.
“In this case, [the defendant] has unquestionably established the first two components,” Klaphake wrote. “This evidence was favorable to [the defendant], to the extent that it would have bolstered his self-defense claim and his credibility. In addition, the authorities in Ramsey County, including the police, the medical examiner’s office, and the probation department, clearly knew of the victim’s other name and prior history.”
The court then concluded that the prosecutor had a duty to disclose this evidence to the defense.
Klaphake observed that the only remaining issue was whether the failure to disclose the evidence prejudiced the defendant and denied him a fair trial.
Klaphake noted that evidence of the victim’s prior bad acts and character would have been admissible to prove the defendant’s state of mind at the time he took a swing at the victim, given the defendant’s claim that the victim was boasting that he had just been released from prison for a double murder and his claim that he thought the victim was reaching into his pocket for a weapon. Evidence that the victim had just been released from prison also would have been admissible to bolster the defendant’s credibility as to what the victim said to him and would have made less convincing the prosecutor’s statements that the defendant had fabricated that part of his story, the judge continued.
The court found that this evidence indisputedly would have been admissible in some form at trial, had defense counsel known about it.
“The evidence here, which consisted of prison and police records,… was directly relevant to [the defendant’s] credibility and self-defense claim, and easily could have led the defense to discover other witnesses or evidence favorable to [the defendant],” wrote Klaphake. “[Further], this evidence might have changed [the defendant’s] decision to testify, thus limiting the prosecution’s ability to cross-examine him and impeach his credibility.”
In remanding the decision back to the trial court, the Court of Appeals concluded that because it appeared reasonably probable that the evidence may have made a difference in the outcome of the defendant’s trial, his right to a fair trial may have been violated.