POST WRITTEN BY: Prof. 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?
In two cases, People v. Assad Cedeno and People v. Keith Johnson, the NY Court of Appeals recently held that the defendants were deprived of their Sixth Amendment rights to be confronted with the witnesses against them by inadequately redacted statements of non-testifying co-defendants that were admitted at trial. Because the inadequately redacted statements remained facially incriminating, the convictions were reversed.
In People v. Cedeno, No. 24, 2016 NY Slip Op. 02281 (Mar. 29, 2016), which arose out of a gang fight, the lower court dealt with a statement by a co-defendant describing the defendant as “one of the Latin Kings wearing red and white trunks…[who] pulled out a knife and rushed the whole crowd and then ran over to the victim and started punching him with a small knife.” The statement was redacted to remove the description of the defendant’s clothing.
Judges Piggott and Garcia dissenting, the Court held that despite the redaction the statement remained facially incriminating and violated the defendant’s confrontation rights. The oral statement did not do so, because it contained a reference to a generic Latin King. However, the written version, which also went to the jury, replaced the description with a large blank space. The Court concluded that since the defendant was one of the three co-defendants sitting at the table with the declarant, the statement powerfully implicated him. Presumably the Court was saying that the fact that it could have implicated one of the other defendant “latin kings” at the table did not change the result.
The dissenters would have held that despite the blank spaces and clear signs of alteration the statement did not cause the jurors to realize that it specifically referred to the defendant.
In People v. Johnson, No. 25, 2016 NY Slip Op. 02282 (Mar. 29, 2016), the co-defendant had testified in the grand jury and gave a false exculpatory statement about what had occurred during the crime, which included a description of the defendant’s role in trying to rob an undercover officer in a buy and bust operation. The grand jury testimony was read into evidence. The Court rejected the People’s argument that the statement could not be inculpatory under Bruton because it offered “perfectly innocent explanation of the evening’s events.” The Court held that the co-defendant’s explicitly incriminating the defendant in possession of the robbery proceeds and in the initial stages of the drug transaction violated the defendant’s constitutional rights, even if the statement was ultimately exculpatory.
Pace Professor Bennett Gershman makes a case for the establishing a prosecutorial misconduct commission, as New York considers doing just that. Read the article in The Daily Beast titled How to Hold Bad Prosecutors Accountable: The Case for a Commission on Prosecutorial Conduct.
In a clear, well-reasoned decision, the DC Court of Appeals has held that a prosecutor’s ethical responsibility to disclose exculpatory evidence is significantly broader than the Brady standard and does not contain a “materiality” requirement. While the decision is binding only on attorneys who practice in DC it will cover many federal prosecutors.
The case came to the court based on a report and recommendation of the Board on Professional Responsibility that had recommended a 30-day suspension for a federal prosecutor who violated Rule 3.8(a) of the DC Rules of Professional Conduct. The charges arose in a felony assault case involving a drive-by shooting where the defendant filed an alibi notice. The issue was the reliability of the identification; significantly, what the prosecutor failed to disclose was that the victim had said after the shooting, at the hospital, was that he did not know who shot him. The first trial ended in a mistrial when the jury could not agree. Although after the first trial a subsequently assigned prosecutor revealed the statement, the second trial ended in a conviction.
Among his various arguments, Kline argued that his ethical obligation was co-extensive with his Brady obligation. The court soundly rejected this argument, and its explanation for why post-conviction materiality cannot be used to judge ethical conduct is notably clear and to the point. The court also surveyed the various conflicting decisions nationwide about whether the two standards are co-extensive. Meanwhile, because of a confusing sentence in the commentary to the DC rule, the court determined not to sanction the prosecutor.
The killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, has been in the media forefront since the tragic shooting in August 2014 but it gained new traction recently when the Ferguson Grand Jury decided not to indict police officer Darren Wilson. Traditionally, a grand jury hearing is a one-sided presentation of the facts and evidence by the prosecutor. Not here, however: District Attorney Robert McCulloch decided to let the grand jury hear all the evidence, including a narrative statement by the target. Why? Take a moment to explore this question and read Reflecting on the Ferguson Grand Jury by Joel Cohen & Bennett L. Gershman.
The central irony in this case is that the familiar abuses in the grand jury process typically occur when prosecutors refuse to present all of the evidence and, indeed, hide evidence that might have led a grand jury to refuse to indict – to vote a “no true bill.” What is particularly odd about the Ferguson Grand Jury presentation is the complaint that by his decision to present all of the evidence, McCulloch actually dis-served the prosecution. Why did McCulloch take these steps? We do not know, and we are likely never to know.