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Why prosecutorial Brady violations are unacceptable

In 1963, a landmark holding by the Supreme Court was handed down. Since Brady v. Maryland was decided, it has arguably influenced every criminal defense and prosecutorial strategy that came after it. In the decision, the Supreme Court held that prosecutors may not withhold any exculpatory evidence from the defense that could potentially have a material affect on the sentence and/or verdict in a criminal case. In fact, the holding actually requires prosecutors to provide criminal defense attorneys with access to any such evidence.

Unacceptably, this holding is not always honored by prosecutors. As Brady violations can materially affect the sentences and/or verdicts in criminal cases by their very nature, they are never acceptable violations of law. Unfortunately, the chief judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit recently confirmed that, “There is an epidemic of Brady violations abroad in the land.” He further noted that, “Only judges can put a stop to it.”

If it is possible that a defendant may be either acquitted or given a lesser sentence should certain evidence be brought to light, it is a prosecutor’s duty to share this evidence with defense counsel. Too often, judges let Brady violations slide under the rationale that other evidence of guilt is overwhelming. However, this is an illogical slippery slope. If a Brady violation has occurred, then evidence that could have materially affected the outcome of the case has been withheld. Other evidence may be convincing, but if material evidence is withheld, a Brady violation has occurred and responsible prosecutors should be held properly accountable for that violation. Period. 

Source: New York Times, “Rampant Prosecutorial Misconduct,” Jan. 4, 2014

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