Strickler v. Greene

LOCATION: Attorney General Office

DOCKET NO.: 98-5864
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

CITATION: 527 US 263 (1999)
ARGUED: Mar 03, 1999
DECIDED: Jun 17, 1999

Miguel A. Estrada - Argued the cause for the petitioner
Pamela A. Rumpz - Argued the cause for the respondent

Facts of the case

The Commonwealth of Virginia charged Tommy David Strickler with capital murder and related crimes. Strickler's counsel did not file a pretrial motion for discovery of all possible exculpatory evidence under Brady v. Maryland because an open file policy gave him access to all of the evidence in the prosecutor's files. At Strickler's trial, Anne Stoltzfus gave detailed eyewitness testimony about the crimes and Strickler's role as one of the perpetrators. The prosecutor failed to disclose exculpatory materials in the police files, consisting of notes taken by a detective during interviews with Stoltzfus, and letters written by Stoltzfus to the detective, that cast serious doubt on significant portions of her testimony. The jury found Strickler guilty and he was sentenced to death. The Virginia Supreme Court affirmed. In subsequent state habeas corpus proceedings, Strickler advanced an ineffective assistance of counsel claim based on trial counsel's failure to file a motion for disclosure of all exculpatory evidence known to the prosecution or in its possession under Brady. In response, the Commonwealth asserted that such a motion was unnecessary because of the prosecutor's open file policy. The trial court denied relief and the Virginia Supreme Court affirmed. Strickler then filed a federal habeas corpus petition and was granted access to the exculpatory Stoltzfus materials. The District Court vacated Strickler's capital murder conviction and death sentence on the grounds that the Commonwealth had failed to disclose those materials and that he had not, in consequence, received a fair trial. In reversing, the Court of Appeals held that Strickler had procedurally defaulted his Brady claim by not raising it at his trial or in the state collateral proceedings. Ultimately, the court concluded that the claim was, in any event, without merit.


Did Virginia violate Brady v. Maryland, which provides for the disclosure of all possible exculpatory evidence, when a prosecutor failed to disclose all the exculpatory materials in the police's files? Was there an acceptable reason for Tommy Strickler's failure to raise a Brady claim in state court after such an event? Would the outcome of Strickler's trial been different in presence of the exculpatory evidence?

Media for Strickler v. Greene

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 03, 1999 in Strickler v. Greene

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 17, 1999 in Strickler v. Greene

John Paul Stevens:

The second case I have to announce comes from the Untied States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

It is Strickler versus Greene the Warden.

In 1990 Tommy Strickler was tried on various charges, including capital murder and kidnapping in connection with the abduction and death of a young college student.

One of the principal witnesses of Strickler’s trial was a woman named Anne Stoltzfus who claimed to be an eyewitness to the kidnapping.

At Strickler trial she testified to the abduction in killing in vivid detail.

Strickler was then convicted and sentenced to death.

When preparing for federal habeas corpus, Strickler’s lawyers discover several documents in the police department files that cast serious doubt on the voracity of Stoltzfus trial testimony.

It is undisputed that Strickler’s lawyer had never seen at least five of those documents.

In his petition for federal habeas corpus Strickler, alleged that his trial had been fundamentally unfair and had violated the rule announced by our decision in Brady against. Maryland because of the prosecutor’s failure to disclose these documents.

The District Court agreed in granted the writ of the habeas corpus.

The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed finding that Strickler could have but did not raises his Brady claim earlier and therefore the claim was procedurally defaulted.

In technical terms the Fourth Circuit concluded that Strickler could not demonstrate cause and prejudice sufficient to overcome a procedural default.

The Fourth Circuit also commented that Strickler’s Brady claim wasn’t any of that without Maryland.

We granted certiorari and we now affirm, although our reasoning differs significantly from that use by the Fourth Circuit.

Unlike the Fourth Circuit we find the Strickler has demonstrated three reasons sufficient to show cause for failing to raise his Brady claim earlier.

First the prosecution withheld the materials and teaching Stoltzfus testimony from Strickler.

Second Strickler reasonably relied on the prosecutor’s open file policy contained all of the materials that prosecution needed to disclose under Brady.

Third the prosecutor had assured Strickler’s lawyer that Strickler had received “Everything known to government” therefore Strickler did demonstrate cause.

In addition we find that Strickler established two of the three elements necessary to show a violation of Brady against Maryland.

The evidence related to Stoltzfus was favorable to Strickler’s case and the prosecution failed to disclose those materials to Strickler.

Nevertheless and although the question is closed, so we ultimately conclude that Strickler cannot make out the third element of the Brady claim namely that he suffered sufficient prejudice from the prosecution’s failure to disclose the evidence to undermine our confidence in the Jury’s verdict.

Accordingly we affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

Justice Thomas concurs in part and concurs in the judgment; Justice Souter joined in part by Justice Kennedy has filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part.