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Strickler v. Greene

June 17, 1999


Court Below: 149 F. 3d 1170





NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321, 337.



Certiorari To The United States Court Of Appeals For The Fourth Circuit

No. 98-5864.

Argued March 3, 1999

Decided June 17, 1999

The Commonwealth of Virginia charged petitioner with capital murder and related crimes. Because an open file policy gave petitioner access to all of the evidence in the prosecutor's files, petitioner's counsel did not file a pretrial motion for discovery of possible exculpatory evidence. At the trial, Anne Stoltzfus gave detailed eyewitness testimony about the crimes and petitioner's role as one of the perpetrators. The prosecutor failed to disclose exculpatory materials in the police files, consisting of notes taken by a detective during interviews with Stoltzfus, and letters written by Stoltzfus to the detective, that cast serious doubt on significant portions of her testimony. The jury found petitioner guilty, and he was sentenced to death. The Virginia Supreme Court affirmed. In subsequent state habeas corpus proceedings, petitioner advanced an ineffective assistance of counsel claim based, in part, on trial counsel's failure to file a motion under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U. S. 83, for disclosure of all exculpatory evidence known to the prosecution or in its possession. In response, the Commonwealth asserted that such a motion was unnecessary because of the prosecutor's open file policy. The trial court denied relief. The Virginia Supreme Court affirmed. Petitioner then filed a federal habeas petition and was granted access to the exculpatory Stoltzfus materials for the first time. The District Court vacated petitioner's capital murder conviction and death sentence on the grounds that the Commonwealth had failed to disclose those materials and that petitioner had not, in consequence, received a fair trial. The Fourth Circuit reversed because petitioner had procedurally defaulted his Brady claim by not raising it at his trial or in the state collateral proceedings. In addition, the Fourth Circuit concluded that the claim was, in any event, without merit.

Held: Although petitioner has demonstrated cause for failing to raise a Brady claim, Virginia did not violate Brady and its progeny by failing to disclose exculpatory evidence to petitioner. Pp. 17-34.

(a) There are three essential components of a true Brady violation: the evidence at issue must be favorable to the accused, either because it is exculpatory, or because it is impeaching; that evidence must have been suppressed by the State, either willfully or inadvertently; and prejudice must have ensued. The record in this case unquestionably establishes two of those components. The contrast between (a) the terrifying incident that Stoltzfus confidently described in her testimony and (b) her initial statement to the detective that the incident seemed a trivial episode suffices to establish the impeaching character of the undisclosed documents. Moreover, with respect to some of those documents, there is no dispute that they were known to the Commonwealth but not disclosed to trial counsel. It is the third component -- whether petitioner has established the necessary prejudice -- that is the most difficult element of the claimed Brady violation here. Because petitioner acknowledges that his Brady claim is procedurally defaulted, this Court must first decide whether that default is excused by an adequate showing of cause and prejudice. In this case, cause and prejudice parallel two of the three components of the alleged Brady violation itself. The suppression of the Stoltzfus documents constitutes one of the causes for the failure to assert a Brady claim in the state courts, and unless those documents were "material" for Brady purposes, see 373 U. S., at 87, their suppression did not give rise to sufficient prejudice to overcome the procedural default. Pp. 17-19.

(b) Petitioner has established cause for failing to raise a Brady claim prior to federal habeas because (a) the prosecution withheld exculpatory evidence; (b) petitioner reasonably relied on the prosecution's open file policy as fulfilling the prosecution's duty to disclose such evidence; and (c) the Commonwealth confirmed petitioner's reliance on the open file policy by asserting during state habeas proceedings that petitioner had already received everything known to the government. See Murray v. Carrier, 477 U. S. 478, 488, and Amadeo v. Zant, 486 U. S. 214, 222. Gray v. Netherland, The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Stevens

Opinion of the Court


____ U. S. ____ (1999)

On Writ Of Certiorari To The United States Court Of Appeals For The Fourth Circuit

The District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia granted petitioner's application for a writ of habeas corpus and vacated his capital murder conviction and death sentence on the grounds that the Commonwealth had failed to disclose important exculpatory evidence and that petitioner had not, in consequence, received a fair trial. The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed because petitioner had not raised his constitutional claim at his trial or in state collateral proceedings. In addition, the Fourth Circuit concluded that petitioner's claim was, "in any event, without merit." App. 418, n. 8.*fn1 Finding the legal question presented by this case considerably more difficult than the Fourth Circuit, we granted certiorari, 525 U. S. ___ (1998), to consider (1) whether the State violated Brady v. Maryland, 373 U. S. 83 (1963), and its progeny; (2) whether there was an acceptable "cause" for petitioner's failure to raise this claim in state court; and (3), if so, whether he suffered prejudice sufficient to excuse his procedural default.


In the early evening of January 5, 1990, Leanne Whitlock, an African-American sophomore at James Madison University, was abducted from a local shopping center and robbed and murdered. In separate trials, both petitioner and Ronald Henderson were convicted of all three offenses. Henderson was convicted of first-degree murder, a non-capital offense, whereas petitioner was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death.*fn2

At both trials, a woman named Anne Stoltzfus testified in vivid detail about Whitlock's abduction. The exculpatory material that petitioner claims should have been disclosed before trial includes documents prepared by Stoltzfus, and notes of interviews with her, that impeach significant portions of her testimony. We begin, however, by noting that, even without the Stoltzfus testimony, the evidence in the record was sufficient to establish petitioner's guilt on the murder charge. Whether petitioner would have been convicted of capital murder and received the death sentence if she had not testified, or if she had been sufficiently impeached, is less clear. To put the question in context, we review the trial testimony at some length.

The Testimony at Trial

At about 4:30 p.m. on January 5, 1990, Whitlock borrowed a 1986 blue Mercury Lynx from her boyfriend, John Dean, who worked in the Valley Shopping Mall in Harrisonburg, Virginia. At about 6:30 or 6:45 p.m., she left her apartment, intending to return the car to Dean at the mall. She did not return the car and was not again seen alive by any of her friends or family.

Petitioner's mother testified that she had driven petitioner and Henderson to Harrisonburg on January 5. She also testified that petitioner always carried a hunting knife that had belonged to his father. Two witnesses, a friend of Henderson's and a security guard, saw petitioner and Henderson at the mall that afternoon. The security guard was informed around 3:30 p.m. that two men, one of whom she identified at trial as petitioner, were attempting to steal a car in the parking lot. She had them under observation during the remainder of the afternoon but lost sight of them at about 6:45.

At approximately 7:30 p.m., a witness named Kurt Massie saw the blue Lynx at a location in Augusta County about 25 miles from Harrisonburg and a short distance from the cornfield where Whitlock's body was later found. Massie identified petitioner as the driver of the vehicle; he also saw a white woman in the front seat and another man in the back. Massie noticed that the car was muddy, and that it turned off Route 340 onto a dirt road.

At about 8 p.m., another witness saw the Lynx at Buddy's Market, with two men sitting in the front seat. The witness did not see anyone else in the car. At approximately 9 p.m., petitioner and Henderson arrived at Dice's Inn, a bar in Staunton, Virginia, where they stayed for about four or five hours. They danced with several women, including four prosecution witnesses: Donna Kay Tudor, Nancy Simmons, Debra Sievers, and Carolyn Brown. While there, Henderson gave Nancy Simmons a watch that had belonged to Whitlock. Petitioner spent most of his time with Tudor, who was later arrested for grand larceny based on her possession of the blue Lynx.

These four women all testified that Tudor had arrived at Dice's at about 8 p.m. Three of them noticed nothing unusual about petitioner's appearance, but Tudor saw some blood on his jeans and a cut on his knuckle. Tudor also testified that she, Henderson, and petitioner left Dice's together after it closed to search for marijuana. Henderson was driving the blue Lynx, and petitioner and Tudor rode in back. Tudor related that petitioner was leaning toward Henderson and talking with him; she overheard a crude conversation that could reasonably be interpreted as describing the assault and murder of a black person with a "rock crusher." Tudor stated that petitioner made a statement that implied that he had killed someone, so they "wouldn't give him no more trouble." App. 99. Tudor testified that while she, petitioner, and Henderson were driving around, petitioner took out his knife and threatened to stab Henderson because he was driving recklessly. Petitioner then began driving.

At about 4:30 or 5 a.m. on January 6, petitioner drove Henderson to Kenneth Workman's apartment in Timberville.*fn3 Henderson went inside to get something, and petitioner and Tudor drove off without waiting for him. Workman testified that Henderson had blood on his pants and stated he had killed a black person.

Petitioner and Tudor then drove to a motel in Blue Ridge. A day or two later they went to Virginia Beach, where they spent the rest of the week. Petitioner gave Tudor pearl earrings that Whitlock had been wearing when she was last seen. Tudor saw Whitlock's driver's license and bank card in the glove compartment of the car. Tudor testified that petitioner unsuccessfully attempted to use Whitlock's bank card when they were in Virginia Beach.

When petitioner and Tudor returned to Augusta County, they abandoned the blue Lynx. On January 11, the police identified the car as Dean's, and found petitioner's and Tudor's fingerprints on both the inside and the outside of the car. They also found shoe impressions that matched the soles of shoes belonging to petitioner. Inside the car, they retrieved a jacket that contained identification papers belonging to Henderson.

The police also recovered a bag at petitioner's mother's house that Tudor testified she and petitioner had left when they returned from Virginia Beach. The bag contained, among other items, three identification cards belonging to Whitlock and a black "tank top" shirt that was later found to have human blood and semen stains on it. Tr. 707.

On January 13, a farmer called the police to advise them that he had found Henderson's wallet; a search of the area led to the discovery of Whitlock's frozen, nude, and battered body. A 69-pound rock, spotted with blood, lay nearby. Forensic evidence indicated that Whitlock's death was caused by "multiple blunt force injuries to the head." App. 109. The location of the rock and the human blood on the rock suggested that it had been used to inflict these injuries. Based on the contents of Whitlock's stomach, the medical examiner determined that she died fewer than six hours after she had last eaten.*fn4

A number of Caucasian hair samples were found at the scene, three of which were probably petitioner's. Given the weight of the rock, the prosecution argued that one of the killers must have held the victim down while the other struck her with the murder weapon.

Donna Tudor's estranged husband, Jay Tudor, was called by the defense and testified that in March she had told him that she was present at the murder scene and that petitioner did not participate in the murder. Jay Tudor's testimony was inconsistent in several respects with that of other witnesses. For example, he testified that several days elapsed between the time that petitioner, Henderson, and Donna Tudor picked up Whitlock and the time of Whitlock's murder.

Anne Stoltzfus' Testimony

Anne Stoltzfus testified that on two occasions on January 5 she saw petitioner, Henderson, and a blonde girl inside the Harrisonburg mall, and that she later witnessed their abduction of Whitlock in the parking lot. She did not call the police, but a week and a half after the incident she discussed it with classmates at James Madison University, where both she and Whitlock were students. One of them called the police. The next night a detective visited her, and the following morning she went to the police station and told her story to Detective Claytor, a member of the Harrisonburg City Police Department. Detective Claytor showed her photographs of possible suspects, and she identified petitioner and Henderson "with absolute certainty" but stated that she had a slight reservation about her identification of the blonde woman. Id., at 56.

At trial, Stoltzfus testified that, at about 6 p.m. on January 5, she and her 14-year-old daughter were in the Music Land store in the mall looking for a compact disc. While she was waiting for assistance from a clerk, petitioner, whom she described as "Mountain Man," and the blonde girl entered.*fn5 Because petitioner was "revved up" and "very impatient," she was frightened and backed up, bumping into Henderson (whom she called "Shy Guy"), and thought she felt something hard in the pocket of his coat. Id., at 36-37.

Stoltzfus left the store, intending to return later. At about 6:45, while heading back toward Music Land, she again encountered the threesome: "Shy Guy" walking by himself, followed by the girl, and then "Mountain Man" yelling "Donna, Donna, Donna." The girl bumped into Stoltzfus and then asked for directions to the bus stop.*fn6 The three then left.

At first Stoltzfus tried to follow them because of her concern about petitioner's behavior, but she "lost him" and then headed back to Music Land. The clerk had not returned, so she and her daughter went to their car. While driving to another store, they saw a shiny dark blue car. The driver was "beautiful," "well dressed and she was happy, she was singing ... ." Id., at 41. When the ...

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