Supreme Court to hear convict's frame-up claim

April 26, 1994|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- A case over a random murder in a supermarket parking lot in New Orleans 10 years ago got the Supreme Court's attention yesterday as the justices agreed to hear the convicted man's claim that he was framed by a rival in romance.

The Louisiana death row inmate, Curtis Lee Kyles, already has gained some sympathy in a lower court for his plea that prosecutors unconstitutionally withheld evidence that could have helped him prove that someone else committed the crime.

A federal appeals court judge who has examined dozens of death row cases remarked last fall about Kyles' case: "For the first time in my 14 years on this court . . . I have serious reservations about whether the state has sentenced to death the right man."

The Supreme Court in recent years has been weighing several cases testing the power of the federal courts to handle cases in which state death row inmates claim that someone else was the guilty one.

Kyles was convicted and given a death sentence for the murder of a 60-year-old woman as she loaded bags of groceries into the trunk of her car outside a Giant supermarket in New Orleans on Sept. 30, 1984. The killer shot her dead and drove off in her red Ford LTD.

Not long afterward, Joseph "Beanie" Wallace called police to say that Kyles had sold him that car for $400.

He called, he said, after he learned that Kyles was using the car taken from the store's parking lot right after the killing.

With major help from Mr. Wallace, the police tracked down Kyles and found some of the dead woman's groceries and the murder weapon in Kyles' home or in his garbage.

Later, Kyles would contend that Mr. Wallace planted those items there when he came to a party and that he later told police that they would find the evidence where it turned up.

Kyles said that Mr. Wallace framed him because he was interested romantically in Kyles' common-law wife.

Many documents that were part of the police investigation were not given to Kyles' defense lawyers even though they might have helped him challenge Mr. Wallace's stories and tips to the police. Mr. Wallace was never called as a witness -- an error that Kyles blames on his trial lawyer.

Kyles lost all of his appeals in state court and has been losing in federal courts, too.

As his case reached the Supreme Court, it appeared to be primarily a test of the federal courts' power to review prosecutors' constitutional duty to share evidence with the defense.

A final decision is expected next year.

Social worker protection

In another action yesterday, the court refused to interrupt a movement in lower courts to insulate social workers who work for state and local governments from civil rights lawsuits when those workers act to protect children from abuse.

The lower courts, in an apparently unbroken string of decisions, have ruled that social workers' use of the courts to get child protective orders is entitled to total immunity from damage claims under federal civil rights law -- an immunity of the kind now held only by judges and criminal prosecutors.

One such decision, left intact by the Supreme Court yesterday over two justices' dissent, came in September in a federal appeals court in Cincinnati.

It barred a civil rights lawsuit by a Lexington, Ky., man against two state social workers for getting a court order that temporarily barred him from seeing his child. The man's estranged wife persuaded the social workers to act on her claim that the father had abused the child sexually during visits to him.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.