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Supreme Court declines to hear false-testimony appeal in Waldorf slaying

The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to consider whether a Charles County prosecutor was obligated to tell the jury or merely defense counsel that the state’s star witness falsely testified in court while discussing a slaying in Waldorf.

The justices on Monday let stand without comment a Maryland appeals court ruling that the prosecution’s disclosure to the defense that the witness had been untruthful satisfied Miguel Santana’s constitutional right to due process at his trial.

Santana was convicted in Charles County Circuit Court and sentenced to life in prison for conspiracy to commit murder and illegal gun possession based on the testimony of witness Rashaad Brawner, who falsely claimed he had been granted immunity from prosecution in the killing of Lydell Wood in January 2016.

In his ill-fated appeal to the Supreme Court, Santana argued through counsel that prosecutors have an obligation to correct in front of the jury their witnesses’ false statements rather than simply notifying defense counsel of the falsehoods.

The falsehood in this case went to the witness’s credibility, including his damning statements linking Santana to Wood’s killing. The prosecution’s silence to the jury left the jurors with the impression that the witness was being truthful when in fact the prosecution knew he was not, wrote Kevin B. Collins, Santana’s counsel of record before the Supreme Court and a partner at Covington & Burling LLP in Washington.

The Maryland attorney general’s office had waived its right to respond to Santana’s petition for Supreme Court review.

The justices’ decision not to hear the appeal is simply that and not a ruling on the merits of the arguments presented to them in the case. The appeal was docketed at the high court as Miguel Angel Santana v. State of Maryland, No. 21-440.

Santana’s appeal had drawn the attention of the Maryland Criminal Defense Attorneys’ Association and similar groups that urged the justices in vain to hear the case. They argued that the Supreme Court’s 1959 decision in Napue v. Illinois barring prosecutors from knowingly using false testimony requires the prosecution to “correct” the record to the jury when a witness falsely testifies and not simply “disclose” it to defense counsel.

“The affirmative duty to disclose affords a criminal defendant a meaningful opportunity to prepare for trial, and the opportunity to address the issue at trial,” Gary E. Bair and Jeffrey T. Green wrote on behalf of the MCDAA and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, respectively, in their joint brief to the high court.

“On the other hand, an affirmative duty to correct a falsehood goes further,” they added. “It means that defense counsel does not simply have the opportunity to address the falsehood at trial, but rather, the onus is on the prosecutor to correct the falsehood. The broader protection encompassed by the prosecutor’s duty to correct guarantees a criminal defendant’s due process rights, and supports the larger framework of the constitutional structure of the entire trial.”

Bair, a retired Montgomery County Circuit Court judge, is of counsel at RaquinMercer LLC in Rockville. Green is a partner at Sidley Austin LLP in Washington.

Brawner, the only witness to place Santana at the crime scene, testified that Santana was one of the two people he drove to the Wood’s fatal shooting and that he retrieved the gun and returned it to Santana. Brawner added he was testifying under an agreement with the prosecution that he would not be prosecuted in connection with Wood’s death.

In reality, prosecutors did not immunize Brawner against prosecution in Wood’s slaying but rather had agreed to allow Brawner to plead guilty to manslaughter in an unrelated killing in return for his testimony against Santana.

After Brawner’s testimony and cross examination, the prosecution told the defense at a private bench conference with the judge that Brawner did not have immunity. The prosecution did not make a similar correction to the jury, either while questioning Brawner or during closing arguments at the 2019 trial.

The intermediate Court of Special Appeals upheld Santana’s convictions and life sentence in January, saying the prosecution had sufficiently notified defense counsel of the falsehood. The Court of Appeals declined to hear Santana’s appeal in April, prompting his unsuccessful petition to the Supreme Court.