U.S. Supreme Court
United States v. Bagley, 473 U.S. 667 (1985)
United States v. Bagley
Argued March 20, 1985
Decided July 2, 1985
473 U.S. 667
Respondent was indicted on charges of violating federal narcotics and firearms statutes. Before trial, he filed a discovery motion requesting, inter alia, “any deals, promises or inducements made to [Government] witnesses in exchange for their testimony.” The Government’s response did not disclose that any “deals, promises or inducements” had been made to its two principal witnesses, who had assisted the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) in conducting an undercover investigation of respondent. But the Government did produce signed affidavits by these witnesses recounting their undercover dealing with respondent and concluding with the statement that the affidavits were made without any threats or rewards or promises of reward. Respondent waived his right to a jury trial and was tried before the District Court. The two principal Government witnesses testified about both the firearms and narcotics charges, and the court found respondent guilty on the narcotics charges but not guilty on the firearms charges. Subsequently, in response to requests made pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act and the Privacy Act, respondent received copies of ATF contracts signed by the principal Government witnesses during the undercover investigation and stating that the Government would pay money to the witnesses commensurate with the information furnished. Respondent then moved to vacate his sentence, alleging that the Government’s failure in response to the discovery motion to disclose these contracts, which he could have used to impeach the witnesses, violated his right to due process under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U. S. 83, which held that the prosecution’s suppression of evidence favorable to an accused upon request violates due process where the evidence is material either to guilt or punishment. The District Court denied the motion, finding beyond a reasonable doubt that, had the existence of the ATF contracts been disclosed to it during trial, the disclosure would not have affected the outcome, because the principal Government witnesses’ testimony was primarily devoted to the firearms charges on which respondent was acquitted, and was exculpatory on the narcotics charges. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the Government’s failure to disclose the requested impeachment evidence that respondent could have used to conduct an effective cross-examination of the Government’s principal witnesses required automatic reversal. The Court of Appeals also stated that it “disagree[d]” with the District Court’s conclusion that the nondisclosure was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, noting that the witnesses’ testimony was in fact inculpatory on the narcotics charges.
Held: The judgment is reversed, and the case is remanded.
719 F.2d 1462, reversed and remanded.
JUSTICE BLACKMUN delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I and II, concluding that the Court of Appeals erred in holding that the prosecutor’s failure to disclose evidence that could have been used effectively to impeach important Government witnesses requires automatic reversal. Such nondisclosure constitutes a constitutional error and requires reversal of the conviction only if the evidence is material in the sense that its suppression might have affected the outcome of the trial. Pp. 473 U. S. 674-678.
JUSTICE BLACKMUN, joined by JUSTICE O’CONNOR, delivered an opinion with respect to Part III, concluding that the nondisclosed evidence at issue is material only if there is a reasonable probability that, had the evidence been disclosed to the defense, the result of the proceeding would have been different. A “reasonable probability” is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome. This standard of materiality is sufficiently flexible to cover cases of prosecutorial failure to disclose evidence favorable to the defense regardless of whether the defense makes no request, a general request, or a specific request. Although the prosecutor’s failure to respond fully to a specific request may impair the adversary process by having the effect of representing to the defense that certain evidence does not exist, this possibility of impairment does not necessitate a different standard of materiality. Under the standard stated above, the reviewing court may consider directly any adverse effect that the prosecutor’s failure to respond might have had on the preparation or presentation of the defendant’s case. Pp. 473 U. S. 678-684.
JUSTICE WHITE, joined by THE CHIEF JUSTICE and JUSTICE REHNQUIST, being of the view that there is no reason to elaborate on the relevance of the specificity of the defense’s request for disclosure, either generally or with respect to this case, concluded that reversal was mandated simply because the Court of Appeals failed to apply the “reasonable probability” standard of materiality to the nondisclosed evidence in question. P. 473 U. S. 685.
BLACKMUN, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I and II, in which BURGER, C.J., and WHITE, REHNQUIST, and O’CONNOR, JJ., joined, and an opinion with respect to Part III, in which O’CONNOR, J., joined. WHITE, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which BURGER, C.J., and REHNQUIST, J., joined, post, p. 473 U. S. 685. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, J., joined, post, p. 473 U. S. 685. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 709. POWELL, J., took no part in the decision of the case.
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