Wrestling with Brady v. Maryland

Comstock v. Humphries, No. 14-15311 (9th Cir. May 12, 2015).

A collegiate championship ring was found in a pawn shop in Reno. Stephen Comstock, who had pawned the ring, was charged and convicted with stealing it from Randy Street, a former championship wrestler. It’s not clear, though, that Street’s ring had actually been stolen. Street himself had his doubts on this score: Before Comstock was sentenced, Street submitted a victim impact statement, saying it was quite possible that he’d lost the ring outside his apartment while washing his motorcycle. This was the first time Comstock learned that Street had these doubts. 

When this victim impact statement came to light, Comstock moved for a new trial on Brady grounds, claiming the prosecution had withheld exculpatory evidence—namely, Street’s doubts about whether the ring had been stolen. In response to Comstock’s motion for a new trial, the prosecution hemmed and hawed, but it didn’t really deny the main point: Street had said before trial that his ring might have been lost rather than stolen. The trial court didn’t hold a hearing to figure out what Street actually said. It just denied the motion, and the Nevada Supreme Court affirmed.

Now, on federal habeas review, the Ninth Circuit holds that the Nevada Supreme Court’s denial of Comstock’s Brady claim unreasonably applied clearly established federal law. While AEDPA sets a demanding standard for habeas relief, this case, says the Ninth Circuit, does not present a close call. The whole prosecution rested on Randy Street, and the prosecution didn’t tell Comstock that Street had reasonable doubts about whether a crime occurred.