March 01, 2016

United States Supreme Court Orders New Trial for Louisiana Death Row Prisoner

Congratulations to volunteer lawyers from Fredrikson & Byron and the Capital Post-Conviction Project of Louisiana! On March 7, 2016, the United States Supreme Court granted relief to their client Michael Wearry. In a per curiam opinion, the Court vacated Mr. Wearry’s conviction and death sentence based on multiple instances of prosecutorial misconduct.

Mr. Wearry was convicted and sentenced to death in Louisiana for the 1998 murder of Eric Walber. He was not a suspect in the case until two years after Mr. Walber’s death, when a man named Sam Scott contacted authorities and implicated Mr. Wearry. Mr. Scott provided five different statements to police. These statements were both internally inconsistent and also included significant material facts that did not match the known details of the offense, such as where and how Mr. Walber died.

At trial, Mr. Scott was the State’s star witness, and his testimony was corroborated in part by another witness named Eric Brown. The prosecution repeatedly emphasized that although Mr. Brown was facing unrelated criminal charges, he had not asked for or received any deals in exchange for his testimony. Mr. Wearry put on an alibi defense, arguing that he was 40 miles away at a wedding when Mr. Walber died. His girlfriend and her sister and aunt served as alibi witnesses. Because the State put on no physical evidence to connect Mr. Wearry to the crime, the case ultimately turned on whether the jury believed the alibi of Mr. Wearry or the testimony of Mr. Scott.

In 2009, the ABA recruited Fredrikson & Byron to provide pro bono representation to Mr. Wearry in partnership with the Capital Post-Conviction Project of Louisiana. Mr. Wearry’s legal team conducted a full investigation, which had never been done at earlier stages of the case. They found that there were numerous other witnesses who had no relation to Mr. Wearry and who could have corroborated his alibi at trial. They also discovered that the State had failed to disclose several pieces of exculpatory evidence to the defense. This included evidence that Mr. Scott had coached others about what to say to support his story, that Mr. Scott had a personal vendetta against Mr. Wearry, and that Mr. Brown sought a deal in exchange for testifying against Mr. Wearry and believed his testimony might result in a reduction of his existing sentence.

After the state courts denied post-conviction relief, Fredrikson submitted a petition for a writ of certiorari, seeking review of the Louisiana Supreme Court’s decision in the U.S. Supreme Court. Based on the arguments in that petition alone, and without hearing oral arguments or requesting full briefing on the merits, the United States Supreme Court reversed and granted relief. The Court discussed in detail the failures of Mr. Wearry’s trial counsel and the importance of Fredrikson’s independent investigation. Ultimately the Court declined to consider the claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, however, because it found that Mr. Wearry was already entitled to relief on other grounds. The Court held that the State violated Mr. Wearry’s rights under Brady v. Maryland when it failed to disclose evidence that cast doubt on his guilt. The Court reprimanded the lower court for evaluating the materiality of each piece of evidence in isolation, rather than their cumulative effect. The Court found that, taken as a whole, “the newly revealed evidence suffices to undermine confidence in Wearry’s conviction.” It remarked that “[t]he State’s trial evidence resembles a house of cards, built on the jury crediting Scott’s account rather than Wearry’s alibi” and that “[e]ven if the jury—armed with all of this new evidence—could have voted to convict Wearry,” the Court had “no confidence that it would have done so.”

The Death Penalty Representation Project thanks the pro bono lawyers at Fredrikson & Byron for their extraordinary dedication to Mr. Wearry’s case and congratulates the entire team on this outstanding victory!

Fredrikson & Byron received the ABA’s Exceptional Service Award in 2011 in recognition of their pro bono work on behalf of Mr. Wearry and several other death-sentenced individuals.