After filing criminal charges against a defendant, the prosecution will gather all of their information and evidence and try to build the strongest case it can against the defendant in order to obtain a conviction. In the past, any favorable evidence and information could be hidden and not disclosed in order to prevent losing the prosecution’s case. However, following several important Supreme Court cases, prosecutors are now required by law to disclose favorable evidence to the defense. This requirement is set in order to enable fairness and justice in the criminal justice system.
Brady v. Maryland
In Brady v. Maryland, the Supreme Court was faced with the question of what information and/or evidence the prosecution must disclose to a criminal defendant prior to trial. In the facts of the case, Brady and his friend Boblit were charged with murder. Although Brady admitted to being involved in the murder, Brady claimed that Boblit was the one who actually killed the victim. Unknown to Brady, the prosecution had a written statement by Boblit in which he confessed to murdering the victim. The prosecution failed to disclose this statement and Brady was found guilty of murder. After hearing the legal arguments and theories of the case, the Supreme Court ruled that prosecutors are required to disclose material exculpatory and impeachment evidence to a defendant.
Exculpatory and Impeachment Evidence
Under the ruling in Brady, the Supreme Court only requires disclosure of material exculpatory and impeachment evidence. But what exactly does this mean? Material exculpatory evidence is evidence that would likely change the outcome of the trial by showing the defendant’s innocence. However, this doesn’t mean that only evidence that conclusively proves the innocence of the defendant must be disclosed, but instead, any evidence that may prove the defendant innocent must be disclosed. The other evidence that must disclosed is impeachment evidence – any evidence or information that may alter the creditability of the prosecution’s witnesses. This could be anything from a witness’s prior criminal record to an arranged plea deal by the prosecutor in exchange for testimony by the witness.
Consequences of Failing to Disclose
A Brady violation occurs when the prosecution fails to disclose material exculpatory or impeachment evidence and prevents the defendant from obtaining a fair trial. As such, if the defendant is convicted, on appeal, the appeal court can overturn the conviction due to the mistake. Because of this, most prosecutors disclose material evidence in order to avoid potential problems down the road.
What Information Or Evidence Must Be Handed Over By the Prosecution In A Criminal Trial?
After criminal charges have been filed, both the prosecution and the defense gather information and evidence in order to make their case. Although it may seem like this information would be hoarded and kept secret by both parties, the prosecution is generally required to disclose any information or evidence that they have through a process called discovery in order to ensure fundamental fairness and due process. Additionally, the prosecution may request information from the defense, but is limited to material that does not violate the right against self-incrimination under the 5th Amendment.
The process of discovery is the time prior to the trial when the defendant obtains evidence that the prosecution has on the defendant. Generally, this process starts immediately after charges have been filed, but can continue up until trial as evidence arises.
What Type of Material is Discoverable?
Typically, through discovery, the defendant is able to access all the information that the prosecution is going to use against the defendant in the trial. Generally, this could be:
- Police reports regarding the crime;
- Witness testimony;
- Physical evidence;
- Wire taps or surveillance reports;
- Scientific tests (DNA, fingerprint, etc.); or
- Anything else relevant to the prosecution’s case;
Limitations to Discoverable Material
Although the prosecution is required to disclose the material it is going to use against the defendant through the discovery process, this does not mean that the information has to make sense. Generally, the material disclosed is considered “raw” evidence, meaning that the material presented is not explained or put in context. As such, the defense will have to wade through the material and investigate it to determine what it is or how it is going to be used.
If you or someone you know have been charged with a crime, it is important to consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney that can help zealously defend your case. Contact Us at Minick Law, P.C. for a free consultation on your case.
James Minick is founder and C.E.O. of Minick Law, P.C. James is committed to providing top notch legal services through his team of highly specialized legal professionals. James will defend your rights.