Posts Tagged ‘brady violation’

Is Open File Discovery a Cure for Brady Violations?

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

Prompted by a tweet from Scott Greenfield this morning, we read a short editorial the New York Times did a couple of days ago, arguing that federal and state prosecutors should adopt open-file discovery policies, in order to limit Brady violations and promote justice. We’d missed it the first time around, because … well, because we never bother to read NYT editorials.

This one is decent enough, so far as it goes. The Times points out that it’s up to the prosecutor to decide whether something is material enough to disclose under Brady, and so defendants very often don’t learn of facts that might have been favorable to them. With full disclosure, perhaps fewer defendants who are over-charged or improperly charged would plead guilty, and perhaps fewer wrongful convictions might result.

Yeah, but …

Here’s the thing: “Open file” policies are rarely that. Prosecutors’ offices with open file policies rarely (if ever) make their complete file available to the defense. More often “open file” just means they comply with their existing discovery obligations without putting up too much of a fight.

Prosecutors in general are unwilling to engage in true open file discovery, and for reasons that are anything but nefarious. It would be like playing high-stakes poker in a game where you and only you have to show all of your cards, all of the time. Unless you have four aces and a joker every hand, that’s a losing strategy. Defendants will be able to see all the weaknesses of the evidence with plenty of time to exploit them. People who “should have been” convicted will go free.

In practice, prosecutors only show their hand if it’s going to make the defendant fold. Or to the extent that it will persuade the defendant to fold. Show the ace, but don’t bother showing the 2, 6, 7 and jack.

Of course, it’s a misplaced concern to worry that people who “should have been convicted” will go free. If the evidence does not establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, then it doesn’t matter whether they did it or not, they don’t deserve to be convicted. It’s not even correct to think of whether they deserve to be convicted — the concern is whether the State is entitled to punish them. If the government’s evidence, all of it, is too weak to convict, then the State doesn’t get to punish. (What the defendant deserves only enters into it when asking how much punishment to inflict.)

The proper concern is whether (more…)

ABA Tells Courts to Provide Detailed Brady Checklists

Monday, February 14th, 2011

We wrote recently on our distaste for those on the defense side who persist in playing games.  It should go without saying that it is far worse for the prosecution to play games.  And yet it happens all the time.

Ideally, when the prosecution has done its job right, it’s going to be holding all the cards.  If those cards are good, there’s little reason not to show them early and convince the defense to fold.  It saves everyone the expense and burden of litigating and trying a case that ought to just plead out.

And if those cards aren’t so good, then fairness requires that they still be shown.  Simple due process requires that a criminal defendant — someone whose life, liberty, reputation and property the government intends to destroy — be told when the government has evidence that might help him defend himself.  If such evidence is in the government’s possession, it’s not realistic to believe that the defense would ever discover that evidence.  Law enforcement is rarely willing to share information with the defense.  And even with evidence from other sources, the defense never has anywhere near the resources and ability of the government to discover that evidence.  Anyone who thinks the two sides are fairly matched in this regard either has no experience, or no active brain cells.

So that’s why we have the Brady rule.  Prosecutors are supposed to give the defense any evidence possessed by the government that might help the defense at trial or at sentencing.  It’s a great rule, but the problem is that prosecutors often have a hard time following it.  And they get away with it plenty, because it’s not like the defense was ever going to learn of the existence of that evidence.  And they have absolute immunity from civil suit for their Brady violations.

What happens often enough, unfortunately, is that prosecutors try to game the rule.  Any (more…)

More Allegations of Prosecutorial Misconduct in Sen. Ted Stevens Case

Wednesday, February 11th, 2009

prosecutorial-misconduct-2.png

First, a recap: Last July, former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens was indicted on seven counts of failing to report gifts he’d received, including renovations to his house in excess of what he’d paid for, but mostly goods and services from oil tycoon Bill Allen. Sen. Stevens pled not guilty, and with an election coming up he demanded a speedy trial to clear his name. The trial began on September 25.

Soon after the trial began in Washington, D.C, the prosecutors came under fire for sending one of their witnesses home to Alaska without letting the judge or the defense know. The witness, Rocky Williams, then contacted the defense team and told them that he’d spent a lot less time working on Stevens’ home than the renovation company’s records indicated. That severely weakened the prosecution’s argument that the company had spent its own money doing the renovations.

Then it came out that the government had withheld Brady material. FBI records containing prior statements of a witness had been handed over to the defense, but the prosecutors — Brenda Morris, Nicholas Marsh and Joseph Bottini (pictured) — had redacted parts of the statements that were potentially exculpatory. This wasn’t affirmatively exculpatory material, but it was impeachment material, and should have been turned over.

A memo from Bill Allen was discovered during trial, in which Allen stated that Sen. Stevens probably would have paid for the goods and services, had he been asked to. The prosecution claimed that their failure to disclose it beforehand was an inadvertent oversight.

The judge was reportedly angered by all this, stating with respect to the Brady material that “it strikes me that this was probably intentional. I find it unbelievable that this was just an error.” Nevertheless, the judge did not declare a mistrial, and on October 27 the jury convicted Stevens on all seven counts.

Then in late December, FBI agent Chad Joy went public with the accusation that the prosecutors really had intentionally withheld exculpatory evidence, and had intentionally sent Rocky Williams back to Alaska to conceal him from the defense.

Now, as the New York Times reports, Joy has come forward with additional allegations of prosecutorial misconduct.

In his latest whistleblower filing, Joy claims that another FBI agent conspired with the prosecutors “to improperly conceal evidence from the court and the defense,” as the Times puts it.

“I have witnessed or learned of serious violations of policy, rules and procedures, as well as possible criminal violations,” Joy stated in his affidavit.

With respect to Rocky Williams, Joy stated that the witness was sent back to Alaska not because of ill health (the reason given by the prosecution), but because after preparing him for testimony, the prosecutors decided that his testimony would help the defense case. Joy stated that Nicholas Marsh came up with the idea, after Williams fared poorly in a mock cross-examination.

Joy stated that the prosecution team also tried to hide the Bill Allen memo that stated that Sen. Stevens would have paid for the items if he’d been asked to. Rather than an accident, as prosecutors claimed at trial, Joy now alleges that it was intentionally withheld.

In addition, Joy claims that fellow FBI agent Mary Beth Kepner had an inappropriate relationship with the star witness, Bill Allen. She almost always wore pants, he said, but on the day that Bill Allen testified, Joy says she wore a skirt, which she described as “a present” to Allen. Joy also states that Kepner went alone to Allen’s hotel room. Although Joy’s redacted affidavit doesn’t say it specifically, the defense team now claims that Kepner and Allen appear to have had a sexual relationship.

Joy also claims that FBI agents received gifts from Allen, including help getting a job for a relative.

The judge, Emmet Sullivan, has ordered a hearing to be held in two days, this Friday the 13th, on whether a new trial is warranted. If the judge determines that Sen. Stevens did not receive a fair trial, he could very well scrap the conviction and order a do-over. It would be anyone’s guess, at that point, as to whether the prosecutors would actually try the case again.

Watch this space for future developments.