The United States District Court in the Middle District of Tennessee reversed a murder conviction and granted a new trial in the case of United States v. Maurice Burks, 2021 WL 2209334, due to the prosecutor’s failure to disclose Brady evidence prior to trial.
The Burks case was tried over 25 days where 85 witnesses testified, and more than 1,200 documents were introduced into evidence. Most of the evidence at trial was tied to Burks’ five co-defendants’ involvement in the Gangster Disciples – a criminal organization. The co-defendants were charged with a RICO conspiracy among other things.
Burks was charged with the murder of Malcolm Wright. The government’s key evidence was a .45 caliber gun that was recovered. The government presented three witnesses against Burks, but the star witness was Danyon Dowlen a/k/a Danger Dan. Dowlen testified that Burks used a .45 caliber gun to murder Wright, thus, linking Burks to the murder weapon.
However, Dowlen was a less than credible witness with many motives to lie and garner favor with the government. Particularly, Dowlen was facing his own murder charge at the time of his testimony. In fact, in its opinion reversing Burks’ conviction, the District Court noted that “having had the opportunity to watch the manner, tone, facial expression and over all tenor of Dowlen’s testimony” it was apparent that “Dowlen would say whatever he thought the Government needed, or wanted, to hear.”
After the trial, while the parties litigated and appealed an initial motion for new trial, which was granted, and a second motion for new trial, which was denied, the government disclosed a Report of Investigation (“ROI”) for the first time. The ROI memorialized a pre-trial interview of Dowlen where he tells two agents and the lead prosecutor that Burks may have used a .40 or .45 caliber gun to murder Wright. The type of weapon was a central feature of the government’s case. The government claimed it inadvertently failed to disclose the ROI, and Burks moved for a new trial claiming that the ROI was Brady evidence that should have been disclosed.
The District Court agreed and granted Burks’ motion due to the prosecutor’s Brady violation. In its opinion, the Court noted that it had a role as the thirteenth juror to judge the credibility of the witnesses and the weight of the evidence to ensure there is not a miscarriage of justice. The Court found that if the ROI had been disclosed timely, the result at trial would have been different.
The Burks case is interesting not only because a new trial was granted, but also because of the Court’s description of its role as the thirteenth juror.