United States v. Agurs Case Brief

Why is the case important?

The prosecutor did not disclose that the defendant’s victim had an extensive criminal record. Counsel for the defendant argued that such information would have bolstered a self-defense argument, and sought a new trial.

Facts of the case

Question

Whether the prosecutor has any constitutional duty to volunteer exculpatory matter to the defense, and if so, what standard of materiality gives rise to that duty.

Answer

“No. The Supreme Court distinguished this case from the previous Brady Rule upon which the Defendant made its case. Brady applied to three specific situations. First, the undisclosed information demonstrates that the prosecutor relied on perjured testimony, and the prosecutor knew or should have known. Second, the defense makes a pretrial request for specific evidence. Neither of these situations were applicable to the present case. The third situation, however, is a pretrail defense request for any evidence relating to the matter about to be tried. Because such a request really gives the prosecutor no better choice than if no request is made, and because the prosecutor has a duty to disclose truly exculpatory evidence, the court concluded that there is no significant difference between cases in which a general request is made, and in cases, such as this one, where there is no request. With regards to the demands of a fair trial under the Due Process Clause of
the Fifth Amendment as applied to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment, the court held that (1) a prosecutor does not violate the constitutional duty of disclosure unless his omission is sufficiently significant to result in the denial of the defendant’s right to a fair trial

  • (2) the Constitution does not demand discovery of everything that might influence a jury, and the mere possibility that an item of undisclosed information might have aided the defense, or might have affected the outcome of the trial, does not establish materiality in the constitutional sense
  • (3) the prosecutor’s constitutional duty of disclosure is not measured by his moral culpability or willfulness and if the suppression of evidence results in constitutional error, it is because of the character of the evidence, not the character of the prosecutor
  • (4) the proper standard of undisclosed evidence . . . is that if the omitted evidence creates a reasonable doubt of guilt that did not otherwise exis
    t, constitutional error has been committed.”

    Conclusion

    The Court noted that for purposes of an accused’s right to a fair trial under the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment for federal criminal trials and under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment for state criminal trials, a prosecutor had the constitutional duty to volunteer exculpatory matter to the defense, the duty of which is governed by a standard under which constitutional error is committed if evidence omitted by a prosecutor created a reasonable doubt about guilt. However,  the Court averred that the prosecutor’s failure to inform the defense counsel about the victim’s criminal record did not deprive the accused of a fair trial under the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment, since the victim’s criminal record had not been requested and did not arguably give rise to any inference of perjury. Moreover, the trial judge, after considering the omitted evidence in the context of the entire record, remained convinced of Agurs’ guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and the trial judge’s firsthand appraisal of the record was thorough and entirely reasonable.

    • Case Brief: 1976
    • Petitioner: United States
    • Respondent: Agurs
    • Decided by: Burger Court

    Citation: 427 US 97 (1976)
    Argued: Apr 28, 1976
    Decided: Jun 24, 1976