“There is an epidemic of Brady violations abroad in the land. Only judges can put a stop to it.”
So begins a dissenting opinion of five judges on the federal court of appeals that covers California, eight other states, and a couple territories to boot. It’s worth a read.
What is Brady? It’s shorthand for Brady v. Maryland, the seminal 1963 Supreme Court case that enshrined a constitutional principle that, in a criminal case, the government must disclose all evidence that is favorable to the defense, whether it is favorable as to guilt or innocence or the appropriate punishment. The rule is vital because due process demands it by any definition, and because a criminal case is not a fair fight to begin with. It’s important because most people can’t even afford a defense attorney, let alone an investigator to assist in their defense. And it’s important because, even when people can afford the best defense, some facts and information are in the possession of the government alone.
Brady is so important—so fundamental to a free, civilized society—that the idea of the government’s doing otherwise when it has all of its breathtaking resources, armies of investigators, and paramount access to information strikes one as un-American at a minimum and barbaric at most. It makes David versus Goliath look like “any given Sunday.” And the results can be disastrous.
Nor is it much better if the government gets to decide on its own whether the evidence is favorable enough to turn over.
One solution may be to mandate an “open-file” discovery policy of the kind already followed in some prosecuting offices. That means the defense gets access to the whole investigative file: everything the prosecutor has, with limited exception. Or the solution may be to more readily reverse convictions in which favorable evidence was not disclosed. Or it may be to punish prosecutors who violate Brady in a way that has teeth, administratively for negligent violations and civilly or criminally for reckless or knowing violations. Or it may be some combination of these and other things. But it should not be a prosecutor’s prerogative to decide what is favorable defense evidence and whether the jury gets to see it.
However we best enforce Brady, we need judges to find Brady violations in the first place. Oftentimes, instead, we give government actors the benefit of the doubt in ways we rarely do the accused. And that’s part of the point of this opinion.