Justice Stevens delivered the opinion of the Court.
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.
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 noncapital offense, whereas petitioner was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death.
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,
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.
At about 4:30 or 5 a.m. on January 6, petitioner drove Henderson to Kenneth Workman's apartment in Timberville.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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 blue car was stopped behind a minivan at a stop sign, Stoltzfus saw petitioner for the third time.
After first going to the passenger side of the pickup truck, petitioner came back to the black girl's car, "pounded on" the passenger window, shook the car, yanked the door open and jumped in. When he motioned for "Blonde Girl" and "Shy
Stoltzfus pulled her car up parallel to the blue car, got out for a moment, got back in, and leaned over to ask repeatedly if the other driver was "O.K." The driver looked "frozen" and mouthed an inaudible response. Stoltzfus started to drive away and then realized "the only word that it could possibly be, was help." Id., at 47. The blue car then drove slowly around her, went over the curb with its horn honking, and headed out of the mall. Stoltzfus briefly followed, told her daughter to write the license number on a "3x4 [inch] index card,"
At trial Stoltzfus identified Whitlock from a picture as the driver of the car and pointed to petitioner as "Mountain Man." When asked if pretrial publicity about the murder had influenced her identification, Stoltzfus replied "absolutely not." She explained:
The Commonwealth did not produce any other witnesses to the abduction. Stoltzfus' daughter did not testify.
The Stoltzfus Documents
The materials that provide the basis of petitioner's Brady claim consist of notes taken by Detective Claytor during his interviews with Stoltzfus, and letters written by Stoltzfus to Claytor. They cast serious doubt on Stoltzfus' confident assertion of her "exceptionally good memory." Because the content of the documents is critical to petitioner's procedural and substantive claims, we summarize their content.
Exhibit 2 is a document prepared by Detective Claytor some time after February 1. It contains a summary of his interviews with Stoltzfus conducted on January 19 and January 20, 1990.
Exhibit 4 is a letter written by Stoltzfus to Claytor three days after their first interview "to clarify some of my confusion for you." The letter states that she had not remembered being at the mall, but that her daughter had helped jog her memory. Her description of the abduction includes the comment: "I have a very vague memory that I'm not sure of. It seems as if the wild guy that I saw had come running through the door and up to a bus as the bus was pulling off. . . . Then the guy I saw came running up to the black girl's window. Were those 2 memories the same person?" Id., at 316. In a postscript she noted that her daughter "doesn't remember seeing the 3 people get into the black girl's car . . . ." Ibid.
Exhibit 5 is a note to Claytor captioned "My Impressions of `The Car,' " which contains three paragraphs describing the size of the car and comparing it with Stoltzfus' Volkswagen Rabbit, but not mentioning the license plate number that she vividly recalled at the trial. Id., at 317-318.
Exhibit 6 is a brief note from Stoltzfus to Claytor dated January 25, 1990, stating that after spending several hours with John Dean, Whitlock's boyfriend, "looking at current photos," she had identified Whitlock "beyond a shadow of a doubt."
Exhibit 7 is a letter from Stoltzfus to Detective Claytor, dated January 16, 1990, in which she thanks him for his "patience with my sometimes muddled memories." She states that if the student at school had not called the police, "I never would have made any of the associations that you helped me make." Id., at 321.
There is a dispute between the parties over whether petitioner's counsel saw Exhibits 2, 7, and 8 before trial. The prosecuting attorney conceded that he himself never saw Exhibits 1, 3, 4, 5, and 6 until long after petitioner's trial, and they were not in the file he made available to petitioner.
Petitioner was tried in Augusta County, where Whitlock's body was found, on charges of capital murder, robbery, and abduction. Because the prosecutor maintained an open file policy, which gave petitioner's counsel access to all of the evidence in the Augusta County prosecutor's files,
The judge instructed the jury that petitioner could be found guilty of the capital charge if the evidence established beyond a reasonable doubt that he "jointly participated in the fatal beating" and "was an active and immediate participant
The Virginia Supreme Court affirmed the conviction and sentence. Strickler v. Commonwealth, 241 Va. 482, 404 S.E.2d 227 (1991). It held that the trial court had properly instructed the jury on the "joint perpetrator" theory of capital murder and that the evidence, viewed most favorably in support of the verdict, amply supported the prosecution's theory that both petitioner and Henderson were active participants in the actual killing.
In December 1991, the Augusta County Circuit Court appointed new counsel to represent petitioner in state habeas corpus proceedings. State habeas counsel advanced an
Federal Habeas Corpus Proceedings
In March 1996, petitioner filed a federal habeas corpus petition in the Eastern District of Virginia. The District Court entered a sealed, ex parte order granting petitioner's counsel the right to examine and to copy all of the police and prosecution files in the case. Record, Doc. No. 20. That order led to petitioner's counsel's first examination of the Stoltzfus materials, described supra, at 273-275.
Based on the discovery of those exhibits, petitioner for the first time raised a direct claim that his conviction was invalid because the prosecution had failed to comply with the rule of Brady v. Maryland. The District Court granted the Commonwealth's motion to dismiss all claims except for petitioner's contention that the Commonwealth violated Brady, that he received ineffective assistance of counsel,
The Court of Appeals vacated in part and remanded. It held that petitioner's Brady claim was procedurally defaulted because the factual basis for the claim was available to him at the time he filed his state habeas petition. Given that he knew that Stoltzfus had been interviewed by Harrisonburg police officers, the court opined that "reasonably competent counsel would have sought discovery in state court" of the police files, and that in response to this "simple request, it is likely the state court would have ordered the production of the files." App. 421. Therefore, the Court of Appeals reasoned, it could not address the Brady claim unless petitioner could demonstrate both cause and actual prejudice.
Under Fourth Circuit precedent a party "cannot establish cause to excuse his default if he should have known of such claims through the exercise of reasonable diligence." App. 423 (citing Stockton v. Murray, 41 F.3d 920, 925 (1994)). Having already decided that the claim was available to reasonably competent counsel, the Fourth Circuit stated that the basis for finding procedural default also foreclosed a finding of cause. Moreover, the Court of Appeals reasoned, petitioner could not fault his trial lawyers' failure to make a Brady claim because they reasonably relied on the prosecutor's open file policy. App. 423-424.
As an alternative basis for decision, the Court of Appeals also held that petitioner could not establish prejudice because
The first question that our order granting certiorari directed the parties to address is whether the Commonwealth violated the Brady rule. We begin our analysis by identifying the essential components of a Brady violation.
In Brady, this Court held "that the suppression by the prosecution of evidence favorable to an accused upon request violates due process where the evidence is material either to guilt or to punishment, irrespective of the good faith or bad faith of the prosecution." 373 U. S., at 87. We have since held that the duty to disclose such evidence is applicable even though there has been no request by the accused, United States v. Agurs, 427 U.S. 97, 107 (1976), and that the duty encompasses impeachment evidence as well as exculpatory evidence, United States v. Bagley, 473 U.S. 667, 676 (1985). Such evidence is material "if there is a reasonable probability that, had the evidence been disclosed to the defense, the result of the proceeding would have been different." Id., at 682; see also Kyles v. Whitley, 514 U.S. 419, 433-434 (1995). Moreover, the rule encompasses evidence "known only to police
These cases, together with earlier cases condemning the knowing use of perjured testimony,
This special status explains both the basis for the prosecution's broad duty of disclosure and our conclusion that not every violation of that duty necessarily establishes that the outcome was unjust. Thus the term "Brady violation" is sometimes used to refer to any breach of the broad obligation to disclose exculpatory evidence
Two of those components are unquestionably established by the record in this case. The contrast between (a) the terrifying incident that Stoltzfus confidently described in her testimony and (b) her initial perception of that event "as a trivial episode of college kids carrying on" that her daughter did not even notice, suffices to establish the impeaching character of the undisclosed documents.
Because petitioner acknowledges that his Brady claim is procedurally defaulted, we 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, their suppression did not give rise to sufficient prejudice to overcome the procedural default.
Respondent expressly disavows any reliance on the fact that petitioner's Brady claim was not raised at trial. Brief
Three factors explain why trial counsel did not advance this claim: The documents were suppressed by the Commonwealth; the prosecutor maintained an open file policy;
Respondent contends, however, that the prosecution's maintenance of an open file policy that did not include all it was purported to contain is irrelevant because the factual basis for the assertion of a Brady claim was available to state habeas counsel. He presses two factors to support this assertion. First, he argues that an examination of Stoltzfus' trial testimony,
Although it is true that petitioner's lawyers—both at trial and in post-trial proceedings—must have known that Stoltzfus had had multiple interviews with the police, it by no means follows that they would have known that records pertaining to those interviews, or that the notes that Stoltzfus sent to the detective, existed and had been suppressed.
Furthermore, the fact that the District Court entered a broad discovery order even before federal habeas counsel had advanced a Brady claim does not demonstrate that a state court also would have done so.
Respondent's position on the "cause" issue is particularly weak in this case because the state habeas proceedings confirmed petitioner's justification for his failure to raise a Brady claim. As already noted, when he alleged that trial counsel had been incompetent because they had not advanced such a claim, the warden responded by pointing out that there was no need for counsel to do so because they "were voluntarily given full disclosure of everything known to the government."
Respondent also argues that our decisions in Gray v. Netherland, 518 U.S. 152 (1996), and McCleskey v. Zant, 499 U.S. 467 (1991), preclude the conclusion that the cause for petitioner's default was adequate. In both of those cases, however, the petitioner was previously aware of the factual basis for his claim but failed to raise it earlier. See Gray, 518 U. S., at 161; McCleskey, 499 U. S., at 498-499. In the context of a Brady claim, a defendant cannot conduct the "reasonable
The controlling precedents on "cause" are Murray v. Carrier, 477 U. S., at 488, and Amadeo v. Zant, 486 U.S. 214 (1988). As we explained in the latter case:
There is no suggestion that tactical considerations played any role in petitioner's failure to raise his Brady claim in state court. Moreover, under Brady an inadvertent nondisclosure has the same impact on the fairness of the proceedings as deliberate concealment. "If the suppression of evidence results in constitutional error, it is because of the character of the evidence, not the character of the prosecutor." Agurs, 427 U. S., at 110.
The differing judgments of the District Court and the Court of Appeals attest to the difficulty of resolving the issue of prejudice. Unlike the Fourth Circuit, we do not believe that "the Stolzfus [sic] materials would have provided little or no help to Strickler in either the guilt or sentencing phases of the trial." App. 425. Without a doubt, Stoltzfus' testimony was prejudicial in the sense that it made petitioner's conviction more likely than if she had not testified, and discrediting her testimony might have changed the outcome of the trial.
That, however, is not the standard that petitioner must satisfy in order to obtain relief. He must convince us that "there is a reasonable probability" that the result of the trial would have been different if the suppressed documents had been disclosed to the defense. As we stressed in Kyles: "[T]he adjective is important. The question is not whether the defendant would more likely than not have received a different verdict with the evidence, but whether in its absence
The Court of Appeals' negative answer to that question rested on its conclusion that, without considering Stoltzfus' testimony, the record contained ample, independent evidence of guilt, as well as evidence sufficient to support the findings of vileness and future dangerousness that warranted the imposition of the death penalty. The standard used by that court was incorrect. As we made clear in Kyles, the materiality inquiry is not just a matter of determining whether, after discounting the inculpatory evidence in light of the undisclosed evidence, the remaining evidence is sufficient to support the jury's conclusions. Id., at 434-435. Rather, the question is whether "the favorable evidence could reasonably be taken to put the whole case in such a different light as to undermine confidence in the verdict." Id., at 435.
The District Judge decided not to hold an evidentiary hearing to determine whether Exhibits 2, 7, and 8 had been disclosed to the defense, because he was satisfied that the "potentially devastating impeachment material" contained in the other five warranted the entry of summary judgment in petitioner's favor. App. 392. The District Court's conclusion that the admittedly undisclosed documents were sufficiently important to establish a violation of the Brady rule was supported by the prosecutor's closing argument. That argument relied on Stoltzfus' testimony to demonstrate petitioner's violent propensities and to establish that he was the instigator and leader in Whitlock's abduction and, by inference, her murder. The prosecutor emphasized the importance of Stoltzfus' testimony in proving the abduction:
The District Court was surely correct that there is a reasonable possibility that either a total, or just a substantial, discount of Stoltzfus' testimony might have produced a different result, either at the guilt or sentencing phases. Petitioner did, for example, introduce substantial mitigating evidence about abuse he had suffered as a child at the hands of his stepfather.
More importantly, however, petitioner's guilt of capital murder did not depend on proof that he was the dominant partner: Proof that he was an equal participant with Henderson was sufficient under the judge's instructions.
We recognize the importance of eyewitness testimony; Stoltzfus provided the only disinterested, narrative account of what transpired on January 5, 1990. However, Stoltzfus' vivid description of the events at the mall was not the only evidence that the jury had before it. Two other eyewitnesses,
The record provides strong support for the conclusion that petitioner would have been convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death, even if Stoltzfus had been severely impeached. The jury was instructed on two predicates for capital murder: robbery with a deadly weapon and abduction with intent to defile.
Petitioner argues that the prosecution's evidence on armed robbery "flowed almost entirely from inferences from Stoltzfus' testimony," and especially from her statement that Henderson had a "hard object" under his coat at the mall. Brief for Petitioner 35. That argument, however, ignores the fact that petitioner's mother and Tudor provided direct evidence that petitioner had a knife with him on the day of the crime.
Petitioner also maintains that he suffered prejudice from the failure to disclose the Stoltzfus documents because her testimony impacted on the jury's decision to impose the death penalty. Her testimony, however, did not relate to his eligibility for the death sentence and was not relied upon by the prosecution at all during its closing argument at the penalty phase.
Petitioner has satisfied two of the three components of a constitutional violation under Brady: exculpatory evidence and nondisclosure of this evidence by the prosecution. Petitioner has also demonstrated cause for failing to raise this claim during trial or on state postconviction review. However, petitioner has not shown that there is a reasonable probability that his conviction or sentence would have been different had these materials been disclosed. He therefore cannot show materiality under Brady or prejudice from his failure to raise the claim earlier. Accordingly, the judgment of the Court of Appeals is Affirmed. Justice Souter, with whom Justice Kennedy joins as to Part II, concurring in part and dissenting in part.
I look at this case much as the Court does, starting with its view in Part III (which I join) that Strickler has shown cause to excuse the procedural default of his Brady claim. Like the Court, I think it clear that the materials withheld were exculpatory as devastating ammunition for impeaching Stoltzfus.
Before I get to the analysis of prejudice I should say something about the standard for identifying it, and about the unfortunate phrasing of the shorthand version in which the standard is customarily couched. The Court speaks in terms of the familiar, and perhaps familiarly deceptive, formulation: whether there is a "reasonable probability" of a different outcome if the evidence withheld had been disclosed. The Court rightly cautions that the standard intended
Despite our repeated explanation of the shorthand formulation in these words, the continued use of the term "probability" raises an unjustifiable risk of misleading courts into treating it as akin to the more demanding standard, "more likely than not." While any short phrases for what the cases are getting at will be "inevitably imprecise," United States v. Agurs, 427 U.S. 97, 108 (1976), I think "significant possibility" would do better at capturing the degree to which the undisclosed evidence would place the actual result in question, sufficient to warrant overturning a conviction or sentence.
To see that this is so, we need to recall Brady `s evolution since the appearance of the rule as originally stated, that "suppression by the prosecution of evidence favorable to an accused upon request violates due process where the evidence is material either to guilt or to punishment, irrespective of the good faith or bad faith of the prosecution." Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 87 (1963). Brady itself did not explain what it meant by "material" (perhaps assuming the term would be given its usual meaning in the law of evidence, see United States v. Bagley, 473 U.S. 667, 703, n. 5 (1985) (Marshall, J., dissenting)). We first essayed a partial definition in United States v. Agurs, supra, where we identified three situations arguably within the ambit of Brady and said that in the first, involving knowing use of perjured testimony,
The circuitous path by which the Court came to adopt "reasonable probability" of a different result as the rule of Brady materiality suggests several things. First, while "reasonable possibility" or "reasonable likelihood," the Kotteakos standard, and "reasonable probability" express distinct levels of confidence concerning the hypothetical effects of errors on decisionmakers' reasoning, the differences among the standards are slight. Second, the gap between all three of those formulations and "more likely than not" is greater than any differences among them. Third, because of that larger gap, it is misleading in Brady cases to use the term "probability," which is naturally read as the cognate of "probably" and thus confused with "more likely than not," see Morris v. Mathews, 475 U.S. 237, 247 (1986) (apparently treating "reasonable probability" as synonymous with "probably"); id., at 254, n. 3 (Blackmun, J., concurring in judgment) (cautioning against confusing "reasonable probability" with more likely than not). We would be better off speaking of a "significant possibility" of a different result to characterize the Brady materiality standard. Even then, given the soft edges of all these phrases,
Even keeping in mind these caveats about the appropriate level of materiality, applying the standard to the facts of this case does not give the Court easy answers, as the Court candidly acknowledges. See ante, at 289. Indeed, the Court concedes that discrediting Stoltzfus's testimony "might have changed the outcome of the trial," ibid., and that the District Court was "surely correct" to find a "reasonable possibility that either a total, or just a substantial, discount of Stoltzfus' testimony might have produced a different result, either at the guilt or sentencing phases," ante, at 291.
In the end, however, the Court finds the undisclosed evidence inadequate to undermine confidence in the jury's sentencing
Although Stoltzfus was not the prosecution's first witness, she was the first to describe Strickler in any detail, thus providing the frame for the remainder of the story the prosecution presented to the jury. From the start of Stoltzfus's testimony, Strickler was "Mountain Man" and his male companion "Shy Guy," labels whose repetition more than a dozen times (by the prosecutor as well as by Stoltzfus) must have left the jurors with a clear sense of the relative roles that Strickler and Henderson played in the crimes that followed Stoltzfus's observation. According to her, when she first saw Strickler she "just sort of instinctively backed up because I was frightened." App. 36. Unlike retiring "Shy Guy," Strickler was "revved up." Id., at 39, 60. Even in describing her first encounter with Strickler inside the mall, Stoltzfus spoke of him as domineering, a "very impatient" character yelling at his female companion, "Blonde Girl," to join him. Id., at 36, 38-39.
After describing in detail how "Mountain Man" and "Blonde Girl" were dressed, Stoltzfus said that "`Mountain Man' came tearing out of the Mall entrance door and went up to the driver of [a] van and . . . was just really mad and ran back and banged on back of the backside of the van"
Without rejecting the very notion that jurors with discretion in sentencing would be influenced by the relative dominance of one accomplice among others in a shocking crime, I could not regard Stoltzfus's colorful testimony as anything but significant on the matter of sentence. It was Stoltzfus
The Court does not, of course, deny that evidence of dominant role would probably have been considered by the jury; the Court, instead, doubts that this consideration, and the evidence bearing on it, would have figured so prominently in a juror's mind as to be a fulcrum of confidence. I am not convinced by the Court's reasons.
The Court emphasizes the brutal manner of the killing and Strickler's want of remorse as jury considerations diminishing the relative importance of Strickler's position as ringleader. See ante, at 295-296. Without doubt the jurors considered these to be important factors, and without doubt they may have been treated as sufficient to warrant death. But as the Court says, sufficiency of other evidence and the
The Court concludes that Stoltzfus's testimony is unlikely to have had significant influence on the jury's sentencing recommendation because the prosecutor made no mention of her testimony in his closing statement at the sentencing proceeding. See ante, at 295. But although the Court is entirely right that the prosecution gave no prominence to the Stoltzfus testimony at the sentencing stage, the Commonwealth's closing actually did include two brief references to Strickler's behavior in "just grabbing a complete stranger and abducting her," 19 Record 919; see also id., at 904, as relevant to the jury's determination of future dangerousness. And since Strickler's criminal record had no convictions involving actual violence, a point defense counsel stressed in his closing argument, see id., at 913, the jurors may well have given weight to Stoltzfus's lively portrait of Strickler as the aggressive leader of the group when they came to assess his future dangerousness.
What is more important, common experience, supported by at least one empirical study, see Bowers, Sandys, & Steiner, Foreclosed Impartiality in Capital Sentencing: Jurors' Predispositions, Guilt-Trial Experience, and Premature Decision Making, 83 Cornell L. Rev. 1476, 1486-1496 (1998), tells us that the evidence and arguments presented during the guilt phase of a capital trial will often have a significant effect on the jurors' choice of sentence. True, Stoltzfus's testimony directly discussed only the circumstances of Whitlock's abduction, but its impact on the jury was almost certainly broader, as the prosecutor recognized. After the jury rendered its verdict on guilt, for example, the defense moved for a judgment of acquittal on the capital murder charge based on insufficiency of the evidence. In the prosecutor's argument to the court he replied that
Stoltzfus's testimony helped establish the "principle," as the prosecutor put it, that Strickler was "the aggressor," the dominant figure, in the whole sequence of criminal events, including the murder, not just in the abduction. If the defense could have called Stoltzfus's credibility into question, the jurors' belief that Strickler was the chief aggressor might have been undermined to the point that at least one of them would have hesitated to recommend death.
The Court suggests that the jury might have concluded that Strickler was the leader based on three other pieces of evidence: Kurt Massie's identification of Strickler as the driver of Whitlock's car on its way toward the field where she was killed; Donna Tudor's testimony that Strickler kept the car the following week; and Tudor's testimony that Strickler threatened Henderson with a knife later on the evening of the murder. But if we are going to look at other testimony we cannot stop here. The accuracy of both Massie's and Tudor's testimony was open to question,
Ultimately, I cannot accept the Court's discount of Stoltzfus in the Brady sentencing calculus for the reason I have repeatedly emphasized, the undeniable narrative force of what she said. Against this, it does not matter so much that other witnesses could have placed Strickler at the shopping mall on the afternoon of the murder, ante, at 293-294, or that the Stoltzfus testimony did not directly address the aggravating factors found, ante, at 295. What is important is that her evidence presented a gripping story, see E. Loftus & J. Doyle, Eyewitness Testimony: Civil and Criminal 5 (3d ed. 1997) ("[R]esearch redoundingly proves that the story format is a powerful key to juror decision making"). Its message was that Strickler was the madly energetic leader of two morally apathetic accomplices, who were passive but for his direction. One cannot be reasonably confident that not a single juror would have had a different perspective after an impeachment that would have destroyed the credibility of that story. I would accordingly vacate the sentence and remand for reconsideration, and to that extent I respectfully dissent.
Kent S. Scheidegger filed a brief for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation as amicus curiae urging affirmance.
"The weight and dimensions of the 69-pound bloodstained rock, which was introduced in evidence as an exhibit, made it apparent that a single person could not have lifted it and dropped or thrown it while simultaneously holding the victim down. The bloodstains on Henderson's jacket as well as on Strickler's clothing further tended to corroborate the Commonwealth's theory that the two men had been in the immediate presence of the victim's body when the fatal blows were struck and, hence, had jointly participated in the killing." Strickler, 241 Va., at 494, 404 S. E. 2d, at 235.
In light of these assertions, we fail to see how the Commonwealth believes petitioner could have shown "good cause" sufficient to get discovery on a Brady claim in state habeas.
Henderson's trial took place before the Virginia Supreme Court affirmed the trial instruction, and the "joint perpetrator" theory it embodied, given at petitioner's trial. Strickler v. Commonwealth, 241 Va., at 494, 404 S. E. 2d, at 235. Petitioner's trial judge rejected one of petitioner's proffered instructions, which would have required the Commonwealth to prove that "the defendant was the person who actually delivered the blow that killed Leanne Whitlock." Ibid. Petitioner's trial judge recused himself from presiding over Henderson's trial, indicating that he had already formed his own opinion about what had happened the night of Whitlock's murder. 21 Record 2.