United States v. Agurs, 427 U.S. 97 (1976)

2012-09-19 13:31:04

In Agurs, the Supreme Court refined its test from Brady v. Maryland for deciding whether the due process clause requires a new trial when the government withholds exculpatory information from a criminal defendant.

Agurs, a prostitute, killed a customer, Sewell. At Agurs’ murder trial, her attorney unsuccessfully argued that she acted in self-defense after Sewell attacked her with a knife.

After her conviction, Agurs’ attorney discovered that Sewell had been convicted of assault and illegally carrying weapons. Agurs moved for a new trial, arguing that the prosecution’s failure to disclosure Sewell’s record violated Brady. The trial judge denied the motion, but an appellate court ordered a new trial.

The Supreme Court reinstated Agurs’ conviction by a vote of seven to two. The Court first rejected the prosecution’s argument that it must disclose information only when the defense specifically requests it and instead held that prosecutors must turn over exculpatory information even without a request. However, the Court ruled, failure to turn over ‘‘Brady material’’ requires a new trial only if disclosure reasonably likely would have changed the outcome of the trial. Because the jury knew that Sewell was carrying knives, the Court concluded that disclosure of his record likely would not have changed the outcome.

Agurs is important, because it defined both the prosecution’s duty to disclose exculpatory information and the standard to be used when such information is withheld. In subsequent cases, including Pennsylvania v. Ritchie and Arizona v. Youngblood, the Court has further refined the Brady standard.


References and Further Reading

  • Imwinkelried, Edwin, and Norman Garland. Exculpatory Evidence. 2nd ed. Michie, 1996.
  • Stacy, Tom, The Search for Truth in Constitutional Criminal Procedure, Columbia Law Review 91 (1991): 1369.

Cases and Statutes Cited

See also Arizona v. Youngblood, 488 U.S. 51 (1988); Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963); Due Process; Fourteenth Amendment