The Brady Rule: The Fox Guards the Henhouse

Of all the rules governing criminal cases I have learned over the past 33 years, the Brady rule is the most troubling.  Brady teaches that the government violates the due process rights of a criminal Defendant if the prosecution fails to reveal exculpatory evidence to the defense.  Unfortunately, it is the prosecutor and the police who decide whether to turn over “exculpatory” evidence to the defense lawyer.  In other words, if the prosecutor in a highly contested case finds out that there is evidence tending to show that the Defendant is innocent, the prosecutor gets to decide whether to tell the defense lawyer about that information.  This is obviously very similar to the old saying about letting the fox guard the henhouse.  Prosecutors are like most lawyers, they like to win, and even the most honest and even-handed prosecutor will not see the evidence the same way as does the defense attorney.  As a result, violations of the Brady rule are legion. The quote in the next paragraph comes from a pair of Brady cases that will be argued in the Supreme Court next month, Overton v. United States and Turner v. United States.

“Fifty years after Brady was decided, prosecutors still routinely withhold exculpatory and impeachment evidence from defendants. See Bennett L. Gershman, Reflections on Brady v. Maryland, 47 S. TEX. L. REV. 685, 688 (2006) (“Numerous studies have documented widespread and egregious Brady violations.”); Janet C. Hoeffel, Prosecutorial Discretion at the Core: The Good Prosecutor Meets Brady, 109 PENN. ST. L. REV. 1133, 1148 (2005) (“Withholding favorable evidence … seems to be the norm.”). This stubborn, pernicious problem is not localized. See United States v. Olsen, 737 F.3d 625, 631 (9th Cir. 2013) (Kozinski, C.J., dissenting from denial of reh’g en banc) (citing cases). And Brady violations occur in all sorts of criminal cases, from capital murder cases to those involving white collar offenses. See Tiffany M. Joslyn & Shana-Tara Regon, Faces of Brady: The Human Cost of Brady Violations, Champion, May 2013 (describing Brady violations in cases involving murder, bribery under the FCPA, cocaine trafficking, unlawful dispensation of prescriptions, and the like).

What happened in Overton and Turner is truly disturbing.  A middle-aged woman was brutally murdered in a “bad” neighborhood of Washington, DC in 1984.  Seven men went to trial, were found guilty, and have spent the last three decades in prison after being convicted.  The prosecution’s theory at trial was that the victim died at the hands of a gang attack that was witnessed by several individuals.  Years after the convictions, the Defendants (and their ever-vigilant attorneys) discovered a raft of helpful and exculpatory evidence that the prosecutors and police officials had withheld.  1) The police and lead prosecutor got statements from witnesses who implicated another person, McMillan, as being on the scene and acting suspiciously.  McMillan later attacked other middle-aged women and was convicted for those crimes that had disturbing similarities to the case in question. 2) The prosecution’s theory always was that the crime was a group attack, even though the prosecutor had suppressed evidence from other witnesses that only one or two perpetrators could have been in the area where the victim was attacked. 3) The witnesses called by the prosecutors at trial had lots of problems that the prosecutors decided to keep from the defense, issues such as one was high on PCP when she identified suspects, that same witness asked her friend (another witness) to lie, another witness was physically threatened by the police when she did not say what they wanted her to say.  All of this withheld evidence likely would have been helpful to the defense. Oh, I forgot to mention, the jury acquitted two Defendants who heard from these same prosecution witnesses, and needed 40-50 votes before it could convict two of the others.

The legal issue in these cases is whether the withheld evidence was “material”.  Under the Brady rule, a Defendant does not get a new trial when the prosecutor suppresses evidence unless that evidence was important enough so that it would have impacted the jury.  The exceptionally talented lawyers representing the Defendants contend that the lower courts used an improperly harsh “materiality” standard, and that the case should be sent back for further proceedings.

Cases like this keep me up at night.  Like most lawyers in my business, I have seen situations where prosecutors hold back on exculpatory information.  I recall one case where an otherwise very honest and honorable prosecutor knew about yet failed to tell me that his main witness had been caught telling an identical lie to what she said about my client.  Only by dumb luck did I discover the information shortly before trial.  My client was acquitted, but nothing ever happened to this prosecutor.  Hopefully, the Supreme Court will send the message when it decides these two cases in the near future.