updated 4/28/2009 4:47:31 PM ET 2009-04-28T20:47:31

The Supreme Court granted a new hearing in federal court for a Tennessee death row inmate who was deprived of key evidence at his trial.

The justices on Tuesday ordered a review of the death sentence given to Gary Bradford Cone, who was convicted of beating an elderly couple to death in 1980.

Prosecutors belittled Cone's claims that he was a drug addict who suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome following military service in Vietnam. But it was later revealed that they withheld information that could substantiate Cone's claims.

Cone has never had a hearing that considered the concealed evidence and whether it justified converting his sentence from death to life in prison, his lawyer, Thomas Goldstein, told the justices during arguments in December.

"While we agree that the withheld documents were not material to the question whether Cone committed murder with the requisite mental state, the lower courts failed to adequately consider whether that same evidence was material to Cone's sentence," said Justice John Paul Stevens, who wrote the majority opinion for the court.

Reviewing the opinion
Sharon Curtis-Flair, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee attorney general, said they are still reviewing the opinion.

Cone was convicted of beating to death Shipley Todd, 93, and his wife, Cleopatra, 79, in their home in Memphis in 1980. At his trial, he put on an insanity defense, arguing that he was a drug addict who suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome following military service in Vietnam.

The prosecutor scoffed at Cone's claims, calling them "baloney." A jury sentenced him to death.

It turned out, however, that the prosecutor withheld information that could substantiate Cone's claims, including police and FBI communications identifying Cone as a drug user and as an addict, and witness statements describing his behavior as "weird" and "wild-eyed."

Cone first gained access to some of the information through an open-records request, rather than the usual path of the prosecution providing potentially exculpatory material to the defense.

Paul Bottei, Cone's federal public defender in Nashville, said Cone filed the request back in 1993 to get access to files from the district attorney's office in Memphis.

The Supreme Court has twice reinstated Cone's death sentence on different appeals, but Bottei said this appeal was his strongest claim.

"His whole defense is about his mental state and this claim went to his mental state and whether he had drug problems," Bottei said.

'Utterly irrational'
During arguments, justices showed rare bursts of anger at Tennessee prosecutors for not turning over all of the evidence to Cone's defense team.

"You're saying that the lawyer, the trained lawyer for the government, who knew this information and knew the defense, just what? Just overlooked it by accident? Just what?" Justice Stephen Breyer demanded of Jennifer Smith, representing Tennessee.

A few minutes later, Justice David Souter addressed Smith after she said prosecutors were not required to hand over the evidence in question. "I believe you have just made a statement to me that is utterly irrational," Souter said.

The case was vacated and remanded to the federal trial courts. Bottei said the district court will decide whether the withheld evidence unfairly affected the jury's decision to sentence him to death.

Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented, while Justice Samuel Alito dissented in part and concurred in part.

"Cone has not come close to demonstrating that there is a 'reasonable probability' that the withheld evidence, analyzed individually or cumulatively, would have changed the result of his sentencing," Thomas said.

The case is Cone v. Bell, 07-1114.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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