It is a fact that bias exists in the world. Our laws and courts take steps to reduce the ways bias can affect criminal cases, but they are imperfect. In the end, if you put someone charged with a serious crime on the witness stand and then ask a jury to compare his testimony to that of a veteran police officer, most juries will side with the cop. If that cop is unfairly biased, the results can be devastating for the individuals and families involved.
Thousands of people wrongfully imprisoned
USA Today recently published the results of its investigation into the problem of dishonest law enforcement. It found that hundreds of prosecutors’ offices around the nation were not doing an adequate job of reporting dishonest officers. As a result, thousands of people have been charged or sent to prison in part because of the testimony these officers gave in trials.
In criminal cases, there is a discovery period during which both the prosecution and defense can request information from the other side. The sides don’t need to share their strategies. But they do need to share all their material evidence, including information about their witnesses and the testimony they might provide.
Importantly, the prosecution is also required by law to share any exculpatory evidence it might have. This is evidence that hurts its case and could even prove the defendant’s innocence. As USA Today noted, this means sharing the details about police who have lied in trial, committed crimes or did other things to give juries good reason to doubt them.
Why do people accused of crimes need to know about Brady lists?
In 1963, in the case of Brady v. Maryland, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the prosecution went against due process anytime it failed to hand over evidence that could help the defense’s case. Because this could also mean information about police who acted dishonestly, many people believed the ruling meant prosecutors should keep lists of these police. Then whenever they testified, their names would be ready for discovery.
In other words, if you go to trial because a dishonest cop said you were drunk, you should be able to inform the jury about the other times the cop had lied at trial.
However, as USA Today found, prosecutors weren’t all taking the right steps to make this information available:
- More than 300 prosecutors’ offices across the nation had no list of untrustworthy officers
- Many of the offices that kept lists refused to make them public
- Many of the lists that offices kept were incomplete, and at least 1,200 officers with proven histories of dishonesty hadn’t been added to these lists
The result of these failures is that these dishonest cops are still going to trial and getting people convicted. The investigation found that dishonest cops in just one city—Little Rock, Arkansas—had testified at more than 4,000 trials in the past 15 years. Since 1988, nearly 1,000 people have been exonerated after going to jail in cases with dishonest cops. The average length of their prison stays before their release? Twelve years.
The importance of full discovery
Discovery is a central part of any criminal case. Attorneys use the discovery process to plan their strategies for trial and to evaluate pre-trial options. The increased use of discovery is one of the reasons more cases have settled outside of court in recent years. The more fully both sides share their evidence with each other, the better both sides can predict what will happen at court. And this often leads to agreements made outside of court.
However, when prosecutors withhold information about dishonest police from the discovery process, they’re falsely inflating their cases. People accused of crimes need to understand this and to make sure their lawyers will explore every aspect of their cases before discussing plea bargains or heading to trial.
At Kammen & Moudy, our lawyers understand the importance of full discovery. That’s why we zealously pursue every piece of evidence that might poke holes in the prosecution’s story. A good defense is built on more than an understanding of the materials and testimony; it’s also about understanding the people who are presenting the evidence.