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Articles Posted in Discovery Issues

When pursuing criminal prosecutions, the government is required to disclose evidence in their possession or control that could clear the defendant from guilt. This obligation to disclose exculpatory evidence to a defendant or their lawyer is to ensure fairness in our justice system. Prosecutors are supposed to seek the truth, not simply a conviction. If legitimate evidence exists in a prosecution or police file that helps a defendant, intentional failure by the prosecution to disclose that evidence is unacceptable, as it diminishes public confidence in the integrity of the criminal justice system.

The Massachusetts Supreme Court recently issued an opinion in a case that centers around a dispute between prosecutors and defense counsel surrounding the breadth of the government’s obligation to disclose exculpatory evidence.

The defendant in the recently decided case was charged with a drug crime after substances were allegedly found on his person during a search. The substances were processed at a lab contracted by the state to determine their composition and were found to contain illegal drugs. After being charged with the drug crime, the defendant retained an attorney who discovered that a chemist employed by the drug testing laboratory had been credibly accused of tampering with drug evidence in other cases. The defense attorney demanded that the prosecution review the facts related to the chemist’s performance and disclose any potentially exculpatory evidence that was found. The prosecutor partially complied with the defendant’s request, turning over 140,000+ hard copy pages of investigative reports and documents related to the chemist and the laboratory. The prosecutor claimed that their office has an “open file” policy and that defendants were entitled to search through the files to find any exculpatory evidence themselves.

The job of a Massachusetts prosecutor is to seek the truth, not merely to pursue a conviction at all costs. However, in reality, there are social and professional pressures placed upon prosecutors to obtain convictions, and it is not unheard of for prosecutors to turn a blind eye to evidence that would tend to exonerate a defendant. Thus, in the 1963 case Brady v. Maryland, the United States Supreme Court held that a prosecutor in a criminal case must disclose all exculpatory evidence in its possession to the defense.

Over time, the Brady rule has expanded to include evidence that is relevant to “guilt or punishment,” as well as evidence that is in the control of other closely aligned government entities. Indeed, Massachusetts Rule of Criminal Procedure Rule 14 requires the disclosure of “any facts of an exculpatory nature.” However, determining exactly what is “exculpatory” can be difficult, especially if the defendant is not entitled to otherwise view the evidence.

One area that is frequently the subject of litigation is the personnel files of police officers. This evidence can be compelling if it shows that an officer involved in an arrest has been subject to disciplinary proceedings in the past. However, this evidence is not generally discoverable unless it is relevant. Thus, courts typically review the evidence in-camera, and then determine if it should be provided to the defense. A recent appellate decision in a Massachusetts gun case illustrates the difficulties defendants sometimes have in obtaining the personnel files of police officers.

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