In a criminal trial in the United States, there aren’t supposed to be any surprises. Prosecutors are legally required to turn over, to the defense, any evidence they have that tends to show the defendant could be innocent or deserves a lesser punishment. The U.S. Supreme Court mandated sharing this “exculpatory evidence” in a 1963 case called Brady v. Maryland, so this material is often called “Brady material.”
Brady was a seminal criminal defense ruling that does a lot to help innocent people, but there are many situations in which defendants do not have a right to see this evidence. For one, prosecutors generally don’t turn over Brady material until the eve of trial. Unfortunately, since around 95% of all criminal cases are resolved via plea bargains, Brady material is never turned over to the vast majority of defendants.
Another weakness is that prosecutors aren’t the only people with Brady material. The police also have plenty of evidence that tends to point to another suspect, that shows their witnesses may not be trustworthy, and other information about the situation that doesn’t support the prosecutor’s case. If law enforcement doesn’t give that information to the prosecutor, the prosecutor doesn’t have to give it to the defense.
The fact that Brady material is withheld may be a major contributor to wrongful convictions. Fox4News.com recently interviewed one man, Richard Miles, who spent 15 years behind bars for a murder he didn’t commit. In his case, evidence about another suspect could have created reasonable doubt and left him free. But that evidence was withheld by the police.
It’s that kind of situation that prompted the Texas Senate to unanimously pass an Exculpatory Evidence Bill recently. It would require law enforcement to hand over all Brady material to the prosecutor, who would then share it with the defense. If the officers do not, they could face disciplinary action.
“What this has to impress on them is give us the whole truth. Not just information that supports the case, but also the information that weighs against the case,” said an attorney who used to run a conviction integrity unit. “And let a judge or a jury decide those issues. But when you prevent the defense from having that material, you directly impact somebody’s ability to have a fair trial.”