Michigan Supreme Court Holds False Testimony Requires New Trial

On July 30, 2015, the Michigan Supreme Court held in a criminal case that false testimony given by a prosecution witness about consideration the witness received in exchange for their trial testimony denied defendant his constitutional right to a fair trial, requiring a new trial.

In People v Smith, Docket No. 148305, the Michigan Supreme Court addressed the issue of whether the prosecution's failure to correct the false testimony of one of their witnesses at trial was so egregious that it denied defendant a fair trial.

From the opinion's syllabus:

Feronda Montre Smith was convicted in the Genesee Circuit Court, Joseph J. Farah, J., of armed robbery, MCL 750.529, and first-degree felony murder, MCL 750.316(1)(b), following a jury trial. The charges were related to the death of Larry Pass, Jr., a drug dealer. At trial, two prosecution witnesses claimed to have been present when defendant allegedly shot Pass. Tarence Lard testified for the prosecution as part of a plea agreement for his part in the crime. Mark Yancy maintained his innocence with respect to the shooting but admitted collecting Pass’s drugs, helping dispose of the murder weapon, and using cocaine with defendant and Lard after the shooting. At a pretrial hearing, a Federal Bureau of Investigation special agent who led a task force had testified that Yancy was compensated for his assistance in an FBI inquiry into Pass’s murder and a suspected criminal enterprise involving defendant. At trial, however, the fact and extent of Yancy’s participation in the investigation that led to the prosecution of defendant and the compensation Yancy received for it were not made known to the jury. Instead, Yancy testified that he had not been paid for his cooperation in relation to defendant’s case. Defendant appealed his convictions, arguing in part that he had been denied his Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial by a delay of 41 months and that the prosecutor’s failure to correct Yancy’s false testimony violated his right to due process and denied him a fair trial. The Court of Appeals, GLEICHER, P.J., and RONAYNE KRAUSE and RIORDAN, JJ., affirmed in unpublished opinion per curiam, issued October 29, 2013 (Docket No. 304935), because the panel was not persuaded that the prosecutor’s failure to correct Yancy’s false testimony had made a difference in the jury’s estimation of his credibility. The panel also concluded that defendant had not shown prejudice sufficient to constitute a violation of his right to a speedy trial. Defendant applied for leave to appeal, which the Supreme Court granted. 496 Mich 855 (2014).

In an opinion by Justice MCCORMACK, joined in full by Chief Justice YOUNG and Justices MARKMAN and VIVIANO and by Justice BERNSTEIN (except for footnote 5), the Supreme Court held:

The prosecution breached its duty to correct the substantially misleading, if not false, testimony of a key witness about his formal and compensated cooperation in the government’s investigation. Given the overall weakness of the evidence against defendant and the significance of the witness’s testimony, there was a reasonable probability that the prosecution’s exploitation of the substantially misleading testimony affected the jury’s verdict.

1. The prosecution may not knowingly use false evidence, including false testimony, to obtain a conviction. The prosecution has an affirmative duty to correct false testimony, and the duty specifically applies when the testimony concerns remuneration for a witness’s cooperation. The duty applies even if the false testimony goes only to the credibility of the witness. Moreover, the prosecutor’s blameworthiness is relevant. While the prosecutor need not correct every instance of mistaken or inaccurate testimony, the effect of a prosecutor’s failure to correct false testimony is the crucial inquiry for due-process purposes. A new trial is required if the uncorrected false testimony could in any reasonable likelihood have affected the jury’s judgment.

2. Yancy’s trial testimony undoubtedly left the jury with the impression that he received no payment of any kind for his participation in this case. That overall impression was false. Instead of rectifying this false impression, the prosecutor capitalized on and exploited it. When Yancy specifically denied during cross-examination that he had been compensated in connection with the investigation of defendant, the prosecutor again did nothing to correct the testimony but instead used it to her advantage in closing argument, urging the jury to credit Yancy’s story because he had not received consideration on this case for testifying even though he had received consideration on other task force cases. The prosecutor’s repeated emphasis on Yancy’s lack of compensation for testifying and her comments at closing argument enhanced the misleading impression that Yancy was a totally independent witness, underscoring the jury’s false impression that because Yancy had not been paid to testify, he had no questionable incentive for his participation in this case.

3. Due process required that the jury be accurately apprised of the incentives underlying the testimony of this critical witness and that the prosecution not exploit any confusion relating to this critical topic. No physical evidence connected defendant to the crime, and he was convicted solely on the testimony of two witnesses who had significant credibility issues. The jury knew that Lard testified pursuant to a favorable plea agreement for his role in the crime, and his testimony was inconsistent with Yancy’s version of events. Yancy’s account of the crime also had inconsistencies and did not cast him in a favorable light. There was, therefore, a basis for skepticism about both Lard and Yancy. As far as the jury knew, however, Yancy was uniquely credible in one respect: he was the sole lay witness who did not directly benefit from his participation in the case. Had the jury been aware of Yancy’s compensation, the prosecution might well have had a more difficult task persuading the jury to believe Yancy. Given the effect that Yancy’s uncorrected testimony had on his credibility, the central role that credibility played in securing defendant’s convictions, and the dearth of other evidence implicating defendant, there was a reasonable likelihood that the false impression resulting from the prosecutor’s exploitation of the testimony affected the jury’s judgment. Accordingly, defendant was entitled to a new trial.

4. While the delay before defendant’s trial was extraordinary, defendant did not show sufficient prejudice to merit dismissal for a violation of his right to a speedy trial.
Court of Appeals’ judgment reversed in part, defendant’s convictions vacated, and case remanded for a new trial.