Supreme court reverses Louisiana death row inmate's conviction

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 07, 2016 12:58 PM

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday threw out a Louisiana death row inmate's 2002 murder conviction in the beating death of a 16-year-old pizza delivery boy, saying prosecutors withheld evidence that could have buttressed his claim of innocence.

The court sided with Michael Wearry, who was found guilty in the 1998 murder of Eric Walber in Hammond, Louisiana, about 45 miles (72 km) east of Baton Rouge. Prosecutors now must decide whether to re-try Wearry.

Information that raised questions about the credibility of a key prosecution witness, a jailhouse informant, was among the evidence that prosecutors were found to have withheld.

The Supreme Court took the relatively unusual step of reversing an Louisiana state court without hearing oral arguments. Cases are decided using that procedure when a lower-court ruling is considered to be counter to Supreme Court precedents.

Two of the eight-member court's conservative justices, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas, dissented from the ruling.

Wearry, 22 at the time, said he was 40 miles away (64 km) at a wedding reception when the murder took place. Walber was a high school student and part-time pizza delivery boy. His body was discovered lying face down alongside a gravel road with extensive head wounds and a skull fracture.

The unsigned ruling said that some of the evidence withheld by prosecutors could have changed the outcome of Wearry's trial. The prosecution case was based in part on the testimony of the jailhouse informant. Police records showed that other inmates had cast doubt on the informer's credibility but prosecutors withheld that information.

"Beyond doubt, the newly revealed evidence suffices to undermine confidence in Wearry's conviction," the court said, adding that the evidence that was used to win his conviction "resembles a house of cards."

In a dissenting opinion, Alito conceded that prosecutors should have disclosed the information but said that "whether the information was sufficient to warrant reversing petitioner's conviction is another matter."

The court is one member short following the Feb. 13 death of Justice Antonin Scalia.

The case is Wearry v. Cain, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 14-10008

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)