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Simmons v. Beard

September 11, 2009


On Appeal from the District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania (No. 02-cv-00161) District Judge: Honorable Sean J. McLaughlin.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Fuentes, Circuit Judge


Argued July 13, 2009

Before: SCIRICA, Chief Judge, FUENTES, and VAN ANTWERPEN, Circuit Judges


Appellee-Petitioner Ernest Simmons was convicted in Pennsylvania state court of robbery and murder in the first degree, and subsequently sentenced to death. Both his direct appeal and petition for post-conviction relief were denied in state court, but the District Court granted Simmons's habeas petition on the ground that the state prosecutors had withheld several pieces of material exculpatory evidence in violation of Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963). Appellants, various Pennsylvania state officials ("the Commonwealth"), now challenge the grant of the petition. Because we agree with the District Court that the cumulative effect of the multiple Brady violations is to undermine confidence in the verdict, we will affirm.


A. Evidence at Trial

The victim in this case, an eighty-year-old woman named Anna Knaze, was killed on the afternoon of May 5, 1992, at her home in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Around 5 p.m. on May 6, Knaze's son, Stephen Knaze, visited his mother's house after receiving a phone call that her mail had not been retrieved from her mailbox. Upon approaching the house, he found the door ajar. When he entered he saw Knaze lying dead on the dining room floor. Stephen Knaze searched the house and noticed his mother's favorite pocketbook was missing; it was never found.

An autopsy showed that Knaze had been strangled, suffered blunt trauma that severed her spine, and all twelve pairs of her ribs had been broken. The death was deemed a homicide, with the cause of death listed as manual strangulation causing asphyxia. Based on the level of rigor in her body, her time of death was estimated to have been between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. on May 5, 1992.

Simmons soon became a suspect, and was arrested by the police on May 14, 1992, for an unrelated parole violation. While incarcerated, he was charged with the murder and robbery of Knaze. He was tried on these charges in June 1993.

At trial, the prosecution established a timeline of Simmons's activities on the day of the murder. That morning, Simmons drove his girlfriend, LaCherie Pletcher, along with Pletcher's friend Kitty McKinney and McKinney's mother, to various appointments in the Johnstown area. He first took Pletcher to the Cambria County Domestic Relations office, where she was having blood work done around 10:05 a.m. Next, at around 10:35 a.m., Simmons dropped McKinney and her mother off at a gas station in Conemaugh, near Johnstown, so McKinney could pick up her car. According to McKinney, although Simmons at that point told her he would drive back to pick up Pletcher, she saw him drive off in a different direction-toward the Woodvale section of Johnstown, where Knaze lived.

Pletcher's appointment concluded around 10:30 a.m. She waited for Simmons, and tried but was unable to reach him at work. Simmons finally picked Pletcher up at 11:45 a.m. He then dropped her off at school in the early afternoon, and she testified that she did not see him again until early in the morning on May 6, when he showed up at her door drunk and smelling of alcohol. At trial, the defense attempted to undermine this account by pointing to the fact that in Pletcher's initial statements, at a coroner's inquest in August 1992, she said that Simmons came home around 10 p.m. on May 5 and stayed with her the rest of the night, and was not drunk. Pletcher asserted that her recollection had been refreshed as to the exact series of events by an intervening letter that Simmons sent her.

Meanwhile, between 11 and 11:30 a.m. on May 5, three witnesses saw Knaze outside of her house speaking to a black man wearing distinctive sunglasses with wide stems and large gold trim on the hinges.*fn1 These witnesses were Thelma Blough, her son Gary Blough, and Tammy Ickes, who all lived in a house next door to Knaze. At trial, all three of these witnesses identified Simmons, who is black, as the man they had seen, and Simmons's sunglasses as those the man had been wearing that morning. Thelma Blough and Ickes testified that they had heard Simmons ask Knaze if he could use her telephone because his car had broken down, at which point the two entered Knaze's house. Thelma and Gary Blough, along with Ickes, stated that they never saw Simmons leave the house and Thelma said that, unusually, Knaze never turned on her lights that evening.

Simmons challenged the credibility of the Blough and Ickes identifications. Tammy Ickes had initially stated that she only had a quick look at the man speaking to Knaze, and she and Thelma Blough had been unable to identify Simmons from a mug book and an array of six photographs in May 1992. Only in June 1992 did Thelma Blough inform Detective Richard Rok, head of the Knaze investigation, that her son Gary could identify the man in question. Notably, this breakthrough came after Gary Blough had been in the same jail as Simmons, whom he knew had been charged with Knaze's murder, while incarcerated for a parole violation. This was also the first time the Bloughs told the police that Gary Blough was at his mother's home that day. Gary Blough explained at trial that he had not informed the police of his presence earlier because he knew they were looking for him for his parole violation. After Gary Blough's identification, Tammy Ickes identified Simmons only after he was pointed out to her by Gary Blough when she visited him in prison. Thelma Blough identified Simmons at a preliminary hearing in September 1992 after she had seen his picture in news reports naming Simmons as a suspect in Cobaugh's death.

Another witness, David Mack, testified that he saw Simmons on May 6 near the beauty shop where Simmons was employed. He noticed that Simmons had a bandage on the back of his left hand, although he could not remember Simmons's explanation of the injury.

The principal witness against Simmons was Margaret Cobaugh, a sixty-two-year old woman who lived in Johnstown. She testified that, on April 1, 1992, her purse, with her driver's license inside, was stolen from the senior activity center where she worked. Sometime not long before that incident, Simmons had been to the center asking if he could volunteer there.

Pletcher offered testimony that between April 1 and May 5, 1992, she found a driver's license belonging to an elderly woman in Simmons's wallet. Pletcher stated that the photo on that license matched the one on Cobaugh's current driver's license.

Cobaugh also testified that at 1 a.m on May 6, 1992, while returning to her home (just a few blocks from Knaze's house) from a neighbor's house, where she had been providing help with a medical emergency, a man smelling strongly of alcohol grabbed her from behind and placed his hand over her mouth. The man was wearing distinctive sunglasses, even though it was nighttime. He told her that "if you open your mother fucking mouth, you'll get the same thing Anna Knaze got," and then attempted to rape her. At that time, no one had yet discovered Knaze's body. Cobaugh reported the assault to the police later on the morning of May 6, after arriving at work at the senior activity center, describing her attacker as a tall, black man. According to Cobaugh, the attack was so traumatic that she repressed her memory of the experience. She did not mention the statement about Knaze or otherwise link the attack to the Knaze case until October 9, 1992, when she was first called in by Detective Rok for an interview about the April 1992 theft of her purse. She only identified Simmons in a six-person photo array in October 1992, after she had seen his picture in news reports portraying him as the man charged with Knaze's murder. Cobaugh also later identified Simmons as her attacker in a lineup requested by Simmons's counsel and confirmed that identification in her trial testimony.

Presented with this evidence, the jury convicted Simmons of robbery and murder. Simmons was sentenced to death by lethal injection. Both the verdict and sentence were affirmed on direct appeal by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

B. Brady Material

In Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), the Supreme Court set out the rule that "the suppression by the prosecution of evidence favorable to an accused upon request violates due process where the evidence is material either to guilt or to punishment...." Id. at 87. Appellants do not dispute that the Commonwealth prosecutor ...

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