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Prosecutor's Duty to Accused: Disclose Evidence That May Prove Innocence

In Brady v. Maryland, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a prosecutor has a duty to disclose exculpatory evidence that is material to the guilt or punishment of a criminaldefendant. A failure to do so is a violation of a defendant's due process rights under the U.S. constitution. In this context, exculpatory evidence is that which may tend to prove the innocence or cast doubt on the guilt of the defendant, including evidence that impugns the credibility of a witness for the prosecution. Whether evidence is "material" depends on whether its disclosure may have resulted in a different outcome at trial or sentencing.

The American Bar Association's Model Rules of Professional Conduct expand on this duty, suggesting that prosecutors must disclose all information, not just material information, regardless of potential impact on the outcome that is favorable to the defendant. This is in keeping with the central idea that the role of a prosecutor is not necessarily to convict, but to ensure that justice is done.

The State of Florida has adopted a broad view of the prosecutor's duty to disclose information to the defense, requiring disclosure of all information favorable to the accused, whether or not a request for disclosure has been made.

What Is a Brady Violation?

Violations of the Brady rule do not follow a simple pattern. Past scenarios have included:

  • Failure to disclose arrest photographs of the defendant if they do not match a victim's description of his or her assailant
  • Nondisclosure of agreements with witnesses to pursue lesser or no charges against that witnesses in exchange for testimony
  • Assertion that a prosecutor maintains an "open-file policy" when the file does not in fact contain all potentially exculpatory materials
  • Failure to share information regarding contradictory testimony or evidence that someone other than the defendant had a motive to commit the alleged crime
  • Incomplete investigation by the prosecutor to discover exculpatory evidence in the hands of police

Presumption of Innocence + Full Disclosure of Material Evidence = Fairer Trial for the Accused

The purpose of Brady remains minimizing the chance of convicting innocent individuals. Access to all evidence that may be useful in his or her defense is an important component to a fair trial. An experienced criminal defense attorney should understand the implications of Brady and the options for relief that it may afford to a client who has been deprived of his or her constitutional rights because a prosecutor did not comply with his or her Brady obligations.