Monday, May 15, 2017

Georgia Supeme Court finds duty to disclose exculpatory evidence does not necessarily require disclosure before trial

The Georgia Supreme Court recently absolved a state prosecutor of ethics charges arising from an alleged violation of the duty to disclose exculpatory evidence because, according to the court, the “record fail[ed] to show any clear-cut violation of Brady or Rule 3.8 (d), and for that reason, we conclude that no discipline at all is warranted.”

Given that the court concludes the record shows "clearly and convincingly" that the prosecutor failed to disclose evidence to the defense, I wonder what the court means by a “clear cut violation.”  Does that mean that the record showed a violation but that it was an “acceptable violation,” a “so-so violation”...?  Hm; don’t know, but I will let that slide.

There are two more interesting things to point out here.  The first one if that the court does not make any distinction between the obligation imposed by the Constitutional standard in Brady and the regulatory standard in the Rules of Professional Conduct.  As you probably know, some jurisdictions consider the Rules to impose a broader duty.

The second interesting point is the reason the court did not find a violation of the prosecutor’s duty to disclose.  The court found that even though the record “clearly and convincingly shows that [the prosecutor] failed to disclose to defense counsel [the material evidence] before trial . . . Brady does not always require pretrial disclosure of exculpatory evidence . . .”  Citing several older Georgia cases, the court holds that a prosecutor can withhold exculpatory evidence from the defendant until the trial itself and that the duty would be satisfied even if the disclosure is made at the last minute if defense counsel has a chance to cross examine the witness who offers the evidence.  According to this line of cases “[w]hether a disclosure at trial is timely enough to satisfy Brady depends on the extent to which the delay in disclosing the exculpatory evidence deprived the defense of a meaningful opportunity to cross-examine the pertinent witness at trial, whether earlier disclosure would have benefited the defense, and whether the delay deprived the accused of a fair trial or materially prejudiced his defense.”

I find it difficult to think that a prosecutor can knowingly delay disclosing information there is a duty to disclose and that it would be acceptable to surprise the defense in the middle of trial.  (And, even if the information is not withheld "knowingly," as the court states in the case, Brady applies irrespective of the good faith or bad faith of the prosecutor.)  I find the last quote of the court (above) to be of little comfort.  However, I am not an expert on criminal procedure or the Brady doctrine, which is maybe why I find this result surprising.  I just don’t know if this approach is common among jurisdictions.  Do you?  Let me know.

The Legal Profession blog has more information here.

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