Massachusetts Supreme Court Rules Against the Commonwealth in Discovery Dispute

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.

Defense counsel challenged this “open file” policy on fairness grounds, as it would be essentially impossible for the defense team to physically review all of the documents turned over by the prosecution in any reasonable amount of time. The high court agreed with the defendant and ordered the prosecution to independently review the files and search for exculpatory evidence on their own to turn over to the defense. In previous cases involving the same chemist, courts have entered similar rulings, and ultimately the charges were dropped before any prosecution investigation or disclosure of exculpatory evidence was made.

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for prosecutors to intentionally use “open file” policies to overwhelm defendants and their attorneys in the search for exculpatory evidence. Prosecutors have been caught essentially hiding a known piece of exculpatory evidence among volumes of irrelevant material in order to prevent defense counsel from finding the important evidence. This conduct is unacceptable and illegal; however, it occurs more often than district attorneys’ offices are willing to admit.

Speak with a Qualified Attorney for Your Massachusetts Drug Case

If you or someone you know has been charged with a Massachusetts drug offense, you cannot assume that you will be treated fairly by the prosecutors assigned to your case. A dedicated attorney from the Law Office of Patrick J. Murphy can help keep the prosecution in check and give you confidence that you can bring your best defense before the court. Our qualified Boston criminal defense lawyers understand the obligations of prosecutors in this state, and we know how to hold them accountable for failing to uphold those duties. Our attorneys represent clients charged with all types of Massachusetts crimes, including drug offenses. Contact our office at 617-367-0450 to schedule a free and confidential consultation with a Boston criminal defense attorney.


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