Due process. These two words are the cornerstone of the American justice system. So what exactly is due process? Simply, due process requires that the laws and legal processes be fair. When the government treats a person unfairly, due process has been violated . Due process takes on many shapes; however, for the purpose of this article it will concentrate on the prosecutor’s duty to give the defense “exculpatory evidence.” Exculpatory evidence is evidence that clears or tends to clear the defendant of guilt.
Under Brady v. Maryland , the prosecution has to provide the defense in criminal cases with exculpatory evidence that is material to either guilt or punishment. What is material evidence? Evidence is material only if a reasonable probability exists, that had the evidence been given to the defense, the verdict would have been different. This does not mean all evidence that favors or appears to favor the defendant must be disclosed. Rather, the test is, “Had this evidence been disclosed, would the confidence of the verdict be undermined?”
In Smith v. Cain, the United States Supreme Court found that the state of Louisiana withheld exculpatory evidence from the defendant: the prosecution failed to turn-over the lead police investigator’s notes. As a result, the initial conviction was reversed and a new trial was granted.
At trial, a single witness, Larry Boatner, described the hysteria that resulted in death of five individuals. Boatner testified that he was at a friend’s house when Smith and two other armed individuals entered the home and demanded drugs and money. While on the stand Boatner told the jury he had “[N]o doubt that Smith was the gunman.” No other witnesses or physical evidence linked Smith to the crime. Smith was convicted on all five counts of first-degree murder.
Smith argued the prosecution violated Brady by not disclosing the lead investigator’s notes. As previously mentioned, Brady is violated only if the withheld evidence could reasonably be taken to undermine the confidence of the verdict.
Now, Smith was convicted on the testimony of a single eyewitness. So ask yourself, “How can you cast doubt upon the government’s ONLY eyewitness?” Well, find contradictory statements by that witness about whom they saw. This is exactly what the lead investigator’s notes did. His notes show that immediately following the crime, Boatner “could not ID anyone because [he] couldn’t see faces” and “[he] would not know them if [he] saw them.” The notes go on to say Boatner could only describe the perpetrators as blacks males, offering no distinct characteristics.
Remember, at trial Boatner had “no doubt” Smith was the perpetrator. But, right after the shooting he was unsure who the perpetrators were. Would a verdict based solely on this testimony be undercut if the witness delivered differing descriptions of the perpetrator? The United States Supreme Court answered with big yes!!!
Some prosecutors decide to withhold evidence because they are more concerned with “winning” than they are with justice. When a Court catches a violation like this, convictions will be reversed.
Why do I care? It is the responsibility of your criminal defense attorney to gather any and all favorable evidence that tends to prove your innocence. Thus, you need to make sure your criminal defense attorney holds prosecutors to their obligation to turn over ALL favorable evidence. Effective criminal defense attorneys are proactive: a defense attorney must not hesitate to seek sanctions against a prosecutor whom fails to uphold their Brady obligation. Ryan Pacyga Criminal Defense is committed to ensuring that the laws and legal processes are fair and that the government plays by the rules. Here’s an example of how we stay on top of prosecutors to make sure they give us every piece of evidence
Read the Court’s decision here
Ryan Pacyga defends people accused of crimes in state and federal courts across the nation. He is based in Minneapolis, MN. For more information, visit www.arrestedmn.com