In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Brady v. Maryland that police and prosecutors are legally bound to turn over so-called “exculpatory” evidence to the defense before trial. Exculpatory evidence is most anything favorable to the defense. It can be evidence that the defendant is innocent, that someone else could be guilty, or that there were mitigating circumstances. Or, it can cast doubt on the reliability of prosecution witnesses.
Yet well over 90 percent of criminal cases in the U.S. are resolved by plea bargain. Unfortunately, there is immense pressure to plead guilty, even for innocent people. Demanding a trial often means a long pre-trial detention and the threat of a much harsher sentence.
Lack of exculpatory evidence leads innocent people to plead guilty
Another important reason innocent people plead guilty is that they aren’t told how weak the prosecution’s case may truly be. While Brady v. Maryland made clear that exculpatory evidence must be turned over before trial, the Supreme Court never said that it must be turned over before plea bargaining begins. It has even ruled that some such evidence need not be. Therefore, many prosecutors do not turn over such evidence before plea bargains.
This leads to wrongful convictions. One involved a Brownsville, Texas, teenager named George A. who was accused of assaulting an officer at a police station. Probably assuming it would be his word against the officer’s, the teen pled guilty. Four years into his sentence, a video of the altercation emerged which appeared to show that the officer was the aggressor.
George A. is not alone. According to the nonprofit Injustice Watch, a nationwide team of reporters have been investigating whether the withholding of exculpatory evidence before plea bargains results in wrongful convictions. So far, they have found over 130 cases where defendants entered guilty pleas despite substantial evidence of their innocence.
If George A. had insisted on trial, the prosecution would have had to turn over the video to his defense team. Since he pled guilty, the prosecution never mentioned the video.
George A. was officially declared innocent. In a federal civil rights lawsuit, he won $2 million in compensation for his wrongful conviction. However, an appeals court ruled that his conviction was not wrongful because prosecutors are not required to turn over exculpatory evidence before plea deals.
That appeals court ruling applies in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. The appeals court that covers Wisconsin has ruled the opposite way, as have several other appeals courts.
Now, George A. has asked the Supreme Court to hear his case. It’s time for the court to rule that prosecutors should never withhold exculpatory evidence — especially when a person’s freedom is at stake.