by Bidish Sarma. Sarma is an attorney who represents individuals sentenced to death and other harsh punishments including life without parole. He previously worked as a clinical teaching fellow at the Berkeley Law Death Penalty Clinic and staff attorney and Deputy Director of the Capital Appeals Project in New Orleans
On March 29, 2017, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the consolidated cases of Turner v. United States and Overton v. United States. The Court does not rule upon questions pertaining to prosecutorial misconduct and the State’s duty to disclose exculpatory evidence very often. When it does, it tends to rely on decisions handed down decades ago despite evidence that courts struggle to enforce the relevant principles consistently and appropriately. The Turner-Overton matter thus presents both an opportunity and a challenge to the justices. The opportunity? An uncommon occasion upon which it can clarify principles and curtail the confusion that permeates lower courts’ opinions. The challenge? Moving beyond the facts presented and penetrating the deeper questions that reside beneath the surface.
The question presented by these cases is a relatively narrow one: whether the Petitioners’ convictions must be set aside under Brady v. Maryland. That question is one the Court itself generated; the Petitioners initially asked the Court to resolve thornier questions that sometimes arise when the State fails to turn over all exculpatory evidence before trial. While it appears that SCOTUS will most likely take its well-worn minimalist approach in the Brady due process context here, several pleadings demonstrate that deeper, systemic concerns warrant attention.