SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This week, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a case that centers on the brutal murder of a woman in Washington, D.C., in 1984. For decades, the men imprisoned for that crime have argued that they're the victims of prosecutor misconduct. Now the high court will consider whether the convictions must be set aside because the government failed to turn over evidence that someone else may have done it. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The discovery of Catherine Fuller's dead body near a rain-soaked alley sent Washington into a panic back in 1984. Fear gripped the city. Police raced to find the culprits.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Four of the suspects, including 19-year-old Christopher Turner, were rousted from their beds, put into handcuffs and taken away.
JOHNSON: Chris Turner had no prior criminal record. He pleaded not guilty, but the jury convicted him and six other men. Turner spent more than 25 years in prison. In 2011, shortly after his release, we met Turner and took him back to that alley in northeast Washington.
CHRIS TURNER: This is actually my first time back through here in over - what? - 26 years. It's still baffling to me that they believe that I could do something like that.
JOHNSON: Police never found any physical evidence linking Turner or the other defendants still in prison to that old crime scene.
ROBERT CARY: All of us - the many lawyers who worked on this case, some many years longer than I have - are absolutely convinced that these men are innocent.
JOHNSON: That's Rob Cary. He's a lawyer working to free the men convicted in the Fuller murder. Cary joined the case years after the trial after another client of his, the late Alaska senator Ted Stevens, got his case dismissed over prosecutor misconduct.
CARY: I made a New Year's resolution that I was going to get involved in the Innocence Project to try to help people with lesser means than the senator had who had encountered similar injustice. And this was the first case that was presented to me.
JOHNSON: Cary says back in 1984, after the Fuller murder, prosecutors never turned over favorable evidence to the defense - evidence that could have implicated another person, a man named James McMillan. Here's Barry Pollack, another lawyer working to reopen the case.
BARRY POLLACK: The government never disclosed to the defense that they had three eyewitnesses who saw McMillan leaving the crime scene right around the time that the body was found.
JOHNSON: McMillan had a history of violent attacks against women in the area. He's serving life for another crime. Prosecutors have said they're confident in the original jury verdict in this old case. They had no comment on the Supreme Court decision to hear the dispute. Here's what the high court will consider. In 1963, in a case called Brady v. Maryland, the court required prosecutors to turn over evidence favorable to defendants in a process known as discovery.
In recent years, the justices have returned to the issue of lapses by prosecutors again and again. One prominent federal appeals court judge has declared there's an epidemic of violations by the government, but many current and former Justice Department officials don't buy it.
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JAMES COLE: The percentage of cases where there have been discovery violations, where there was misconduct involved is something like three hundredths of one percent.
JOHNSON: That's former deputy attorney general James Cole testified to Congress in 2012.
COLE: And I think it's worth pointing out there is no shortage of defense attorneys, having once been one, who will make any argument that there's a discovery violation at any moment in any case.
JOHNSON: Defense lawyers say without digging through government files, it's impossible to know how many times prosecutors break the rules and deprive defendants of a fair trial. But they say the upcoming Supreme Court review gives them hope there could be a consequence for that bad behavior. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.