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Withheld pro-defense evidence may uncover wrongful convictions

When it comes to criminal cases, society doesn't benefit from the government trying to win at any cost. Our justice system isn't supposed to railroad the defendant, but to prove his or her innocence beyond a reasonable doubt. It's intentionally set up with the prosecution going head to head, arguing different outcomes from the same set of facts.

The same set of facts. The police aren't supposed to gather only what evidence supports the conclusion they want, but to investigate all of the leads they find, even when those go contrary to their personal judgment about a particular person's guilt.

Police work is complex, and officers routinely discover evidence that could prove helpful to a defendant's case. When that happens, what should they do? They should and must turn it over to the defense.

If they fail to turn over evidence that could materially assist the defendant at trial, any resulting conviction they obtain must be overturned, according to the 1963 Supreme Court case of Brady v. Maryland.

It appears that the Washington, D.C., police and prosecutors may have failed to disclose pro-defense evidence in a high-profile case that took place in 1984. Eight defendants, then between the ages of 16 and 21, were convicted of a horrific crime -- the sodomy and murder of a 49-year-old mother of six.

The young men, who described themselves as neighborhood friends, were accused of confronting the woman in an alley on a rainy afternoon. Eyewitnesses testified seeing a gang of young men in the area around the time of the murder.

Those eyewitnesses have since recanted their stories, which apparently made up the majority of the evidence against the men. That's not why the defendants have appealed, however. There was another witness police interviewed -- one whose statement was never turned over to the defense.

This eyewitness told the police she had seen a man -- just one man -- near the alley at the time of the crime. As it turns out, a man meeting her description was convicted in 1992 of a very similar homicide in the same area.

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments on whether the government withheld the woman's statement and, if so, whether the violation of the defendants' due process rights requires their convictions to be overturned.

If they are, six of the men will be released from prison for the first time in over 30 years. Another was paroled after serving 25 years. The last one died in prison.

If you've been accused of a sex offense, you're probably already feeling the stigma. Even the accusation can destroy your reputation. Don't just wait around to see how things turn out.

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