A criminal conviction threatens a defendant’s freedom and liberty, so it stands to reason that federal law acts as a watchdog over proceedings to ensure fair trials. The Brady Rule, named after a 1963 case decided by the United States Supreme Court, governs discovery issues in criminal trials. Under its terms, the prosecution must turn over all exculpatory evidence to the defense; this is evidence that is favorable to the defendant and, therefore, might exonerate him, or impeach the credibility of a state witness. The evidence must be material to the case, meaning that if it were divulged prior to or during the trial, it would affect the verdict.
Duty to Disclose
A Brady violation occurs even if the state isn’t aware that the evidence exists, such as because the police haven’t turned it over to the prosecutor. The violation doesn’t have to be intentional -- and the defense is under no obligation to ask for the evidence, as the state must disclose it voluntarily. But the defendant must prove that the undisclosed evidence was material to his case -- and that there was a reasonable probability that the outcome of the trial would have been different had the prosecutor disclosed the evidence.
Result of Violations
The results of a Brady violation depend on when it’s discovered. If the information pertains to one of the state’s witnesses, that testimony might be suppressed or barred from the proceedings. If it relates to the defendant and it comes to light after he’s convicted, he can then file a motion with the court asking that the conviction be vacated or erased, or file an appeal to a higher court.
Beverly Bird is a practicing paralegal who has been writing professionally on legal subjects for over 30 years. She specializes in family law and estate law and has mediated family custody issues.