Tagged: Brady v. Maryland

Federal Monitoring of State Prosecutors: Who Will Guard the Guardians?

juvenalPOST WRITTEN BYProf. Peter Widulski, Assistant Director of the First Year Legal Skills Program and the Coach of International Criminal Moot Court Team at Pace Law School.

The lead editorial in the New York Times of June 6, 2016 addresses an important issue: the all-too-frequent failure or resistance of prosecutors to comply with their constitutional obligation to produce to the defense evidence in their possession that is potentially exculpatory or mitigating for a defendant. To address this issue, the editorial suggests that the United States Department of Justice should monitor the practices of district attorneys’ offices in which such problems have arisen in the past.

This proposal may have merit, but it contains at least one troubling issue indicated in the editorial’s title: “To Stop Bad Prosecutors, Call the Feds.” This title and the editorial’s text suggest that the problem at issue is entirely or primarily the fault of local district attorneys’ offices and that such problems are absent or de minimis in the offices of federal prosecutors.

The editorial’s concern for fairness to individuals facing state criminal charges is to be applauded, but its proposal raises questions regarding federal prosecutors, who themselves are members of the Department of Justice, the department that would conduct the oversight. Will federal overseers, eager to advance their careers, monitor prosecutors in their own department as carefully as they review prosecutors in state offices? Will the Department’s oversight mandate be limited to local district attorneys’ offices? If so, will this foster an idea that federal prosecutors are exempt from scrutiny regarding their compliance with Brady v. Maryland?

In considering the editorial’s proposal, it is perhaps worth remembering an old question asked by the Roman poet Juvenal: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who will guard the guardians?

Related Readings:

Oh My Brady! Who Art Thou?

Although the New York State Court of Appeals decision in People v. McCray, will likely not be a hot topic of conversation in many legal circles, it will definitely have a palpable impact on prosecutorial practices regarding the handling of Brady disclosures in New York.

In McCray, the defendant was accused of raping an 18-year-old female acquaintance. At trial, the prosecution alleged that the defendant and the complainant had gone on a date and that the defendant physically forced the complainant to engage in sexual intercourse while inside an abandoned building. The defense claimed that the sexual encounter was consensual, and an altercation arose when the complainant demanded money in exchange for having sex with the defendant. The defense also contended that a physical struggle occurred when the defendant attempted to stop the complainant from running off with his “pants.”

Unquestionably, the case presented a “classic he-said she-said credibility determination.” And “[t]he outcome of the case obviously depended on which witness the jury believed.”

Prior to trial, the prosecution requested that the court conduct an in-camera review of the complainant’s mental health records. The prosecution didn’t believe that all of the reports were discoverable, and sought the court’s guidance as to which documents were Brady-Giglio material. The trial court found that only 28 pages out of the thousand records it reviewed should be disclosed to the defense –although the undisclosed records referenced, among other things, the complainant’s tendency (1) to confuse dates of events or misunderstand events, (2) to have hallucinations or distorted perceptions, (3) to misrepresent the truth in an effort to please her mother, (4) to engage in wishful thinking about relationships with males with whom she is recently acquainted, and (5) to fabricate occurrences of sexual assault and attempted rape by her father –allegations which were ultimately deemed “unfounded.”

The Court of Appeals observed that “[t]his case differs from the typical Brady case in that it involves confidential mental health records, and the decision to deny disclosure was made not by a prosecutor, but by a judge after an in camera review of the records sought.”  Nevertheless, it concluded that the key inquiry remained whether there was a “reasonable probability that, had the evidence been disclosed to the defense, the result of the proceeding would have been different.”

The Court held that the undisclosed records were “either cumulative or of little if any relevance to the case.” The Court explained that they “contain other examples of what could be called hallucinations or distorted perceptions, but the other examples were no clearer or more dramatic than the ones the defense already had….” The Court also found that any prior fabrications would be immaterial because the “accusation [against] her father was far removed in time and quite different from the[se] accusation[s]…” The Court concluded that “[i]t is hard to imagine, however, a juror who could attribute the complainant’s testimony here — a claim of rape, made immediately after what defendant testified was consensual sex followed by a dispute over payment — to a failure of recollection or a misunderstanding, however susceptible to those failings the complainant may have been.”

Dissenters were critical of the Court’s failure to protect the defendant’s right to consider and explore all legitimate avenues of information relevant to his defense and to the victim’s testimony and potential cross-examination. (Dissenting Judges: Jenny Rivera, Jonathan Lippman, Eugene Pigott).  They explained that “[w]ithout access to documents concerning reliability of the witness, the defendant cannot properly develop and pursue questioning favorable to the defense or address facts and related issues important to the truth finding process.”

Unfortunately, the long-standing importance of the Brady-Giglio rule has not been fully appreciated by all members of the Court and decisions like McCray reaffirm the need for legislative reform in order to address the stark imbalance in discovery practices.  Likewise, the result-affecting test conducted by the Courts to determine Brady violations is simply a farfetched and imperfect process -as “[w]hat influences juries, courts seldom know.” (Chief Judge Jerome Frank). The imperfection of this process is further illustrated by the illogical fact that the majority in McCray found it “hard to imagine” that a juror might reach a different outcome–while members of its own bench implicitly found that they would have reached a different outcome in this case had they know of the undisclosed reports.

The McCray decision simply fails to recognize that the right to disclosure of exculpatory and impeachment evidence under the Brady-Giglio rule is the cornerstone to ensuring a defendant the right to a fair trial, and ensuring that the “goals of seeking the truth through the trial process” is legitimate.  Without access to favorable evidence, a defendant is unable to either effectively prepare for trial, or present facts important to the “truth finding process.”

All the parties in McCray, except the defense, were permitted to decide how the complainant’s mental health records may be useful to the accused. In my opinion, such a vetting process is unsound, and should not be representative of how future Brady-Giglio materials should be handled by prosecuting offices. As an alternative,  these Brady-Giglio materials, even if  referencing “private matters” of the complainant, should have been turned over to the defense under a protective order, or subject to preclusion after the court heard arguments from both sides. Of course, such an alternative process would at least respect the fundamental principle that the right to favorable evidence is one of constitutional dimension -and the “privacy concern” of a witness is not.

To decide what may be favorable to a defendant, while keeping him blindfolded in his prison cell, does not comport to the notions of fairness and justice for all.

References

Let’s Make Brady v. Maryland Meaningful

The Brooklyn District Attorney has promised to review 50 convictions that relied on the work of police detective Louis Scarcella – linked to “troubling aspects” of one case that was recently overturned.

The newly established Conviction Integrity Unit will review all of the cases where Scarcella was the lead detective and where the police investigation culminated in a conviction after trial.  

The New York Times reported that Scarcella relied on a single eyewitness to make at least a dozen cases.  The witness was known to be a drug-addicted prostitute who claimed to have seen multiple different murders happen before her eyes.

We applaud DA Hynes for establishing a Conviction Integrity Unity, and for focusing on the work of Scarcella. However, we believe that broader interpretation of the Brady rule would have prevented these convictions and could prevent other miscarriages of justice going forward.  Any time a police informant takes the stand, the prosecution should be required to discover and disclose not just a witness’s prior record and the benefit expected in exchange for testimony (that information is required to be disclosed now – pursuant to the current conservative interpretation of Brady), but also information about all the other cases where the informant has testified in the past.  If defense counsel had been told that Scarcella’s informant had traveled around Brooklyn spotting murders, counsel might have argued to the jury that the informant’s testimony was simply not credible. The prosecution might have reached that same conclusion on its own. But, since Scarcella was not required to enlighten the prosecution regarding the informant’s special history, the prosecution could turn a blind eye and keep defense counsel in the dark too.  A broader reading of the Brady obligation would put a stop to such willful ignorance.  

Read the New York Times May 19, 2013 editorial on Brady here:  

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