Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Supreme Court Lets Prosecutors Off the Hook for Withholding Evidence

by Derek Gilna

In a June 22, 2017 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to punish prosecutors for withholding potentially exculpatory discovery information from defense attorneys at the time of trial. In a case that was widely expected to extend the Brady v. Maryland doctrine, the justices refused to grant relief – preferring instead to dispose of the case based upon whether the evidence was considered “material” under Brady.

Given the broad discretion and power that prosecutors exercise at the local, state and federal levels, and well-documented cases of prosecutorial misconduct that are often reported in Prison Legal News [see: PLN, Nov. 2014, p.1], criminal justice experts had hoped the Supreme Court would take this opportunity to hold them accountable for their ethical lapses. They were unfortunately wrong.

Justice Stephen Breyer, who delivered the opinion of the Court, outlined the issues raised in the case. “In Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), this Court held that the government violates the Constitution’s Due Process Clause ‘if it withholds evidence that is favorable to the defense and material to the defendant’s guilt or punishment.’” Attorneys for seven defendants who sought to overturn their 1985 convictions for kidnapping, robbery and murder argued “that the Government possessed certain evidence that it had withheld from the defense at the time of trial.”

Justice Breyer noted that this case, which was very “fact intensive,” brought to light unproduced interview notes, numerous contradictory witness statements and large quantities of impeachment material that prosecutors had failed to disclose, which the government did not contest. Prosecutors instead defended those clear Brady violations by asserting the withheld evidence was not “material” and, as a result, the petitioners were not entitled to relief.

According to the ruling, “[E]vidence is ‘material’ within the meaning of Brady when there is a reasonable probability that, had the evi­dence been disclosed, the result of the proceeding would have been different.” Additionally, a “‘reasonable prob­ability’ of a ‘different result’” is one in which the suppressed evidence “‘undermines confidence in the outcome of the trial.’” In other words, the petitioners were entitled to a new trial only if they could establish “the prejudice necessary to satisfy the ‘materiality’ inquiry.”

Despite the apparent Brady violations, the Supreme Court wrote, “we conclude that [the withheld evidentiary material] is too little, too weak, or too distant from the main evidentiary points to meet Brady’s standards.”

Justices Kagan and Ginsburg strongly disagreed, and in their dissent said whether the withheld evidence “had a ‘reason­able probability’ (less than a preponderance) of shifting even one juror’s vote” was the relevant question, “because the Government here knew about but withheld the evidence of an alterna­tive perpetrator – and so prevented the defendants from coming together to press [a different] theory of the case. If the Government’s non-disclosure was material, in the sense just described, this Court’s decision in Brady v. Maryland ... demands a new trial.” See: Turner v. United States, 198 L.Ed.2d 443, 2017 U.S. LEXIS 4041 (2017).

As noted by Slate magazine, “When the government hides evidence, there are serious consequences. First, it puts innocent people behind bars ... government misconduct – most frequently the suppression of exculpatory evidence – was a factor in 70 of the 166 exonerations (42 percent) tracked [by the Innocence Project] in 2016. The practice also gives the government an unfair advantage at trial, hampering the accused’s ability to mount a defense.”

Little wonder that many people look askance at the U.S. criminal justice system, where prosecutors apparently believe that convictions are more important than justice. 


Additional source:

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

Turner v. United States