Exculpatory evidence held by prosecutors must, must, must be disclosed to defendants under Brady v. Maryland, a now 50-year-old case, under threat of having the whole trial thrown out.
That’s exactly what happened in the Sixth Circuit’s decision on Thursday, which dealt with a Tennessee prosecutor who did not release to a drug convict, Abel Martinez Tavera, evidence of the prosecutor’s conversations with a co-defendant during plea negotiations.
This exculpatory evidence caused the Sixth Circuit to remand the case for retrial, and smart prosecutors should take heed of their opinion.
Conversations with Co-Conspirator
Tavera and his co-defendant, Mendoza, were caught by law enforcement after driving a truck from North Carolina to Tennessee with methamphetamine hidden underneath construction equipment in the flatbed.
During plea negotiations, AUSA Donald Taylor, who was the trial lawyer for both Mendoza and Tavera's cases, had plea negotiations with Mendoza in which he declared that Tavera had no knowledge that the narcotics were in the truck.
Taylor did not to disclose this exculpatory evidence to Tavera, who then went on trial and was convicted for methamphetamine drug conspiracy.
Pretty Darn Exculpatory
The three conditions for proving due process violations demanding a new trial under Brady are still:
- Evidence is favorable to defendant (exculpatory or impeachment)
- State suppressed evidence (even inadvertently)
- Prejudice ensued due to suppression of evidence
The Sixth Circuit noted that the statements claiming that Tavera had no knowledge of the conspiracy are essential to the government's claim of conspiracy and incredibly exculpatory.
Obligation to Disclose
The Supreme Court, in US v. Banks, rejected the idea that prisoners bear the burden of looking for Brady evidence, declaring it untenable to have prosecutors "hide" while prisoners "seek" evidence.
The Sixth Circuit acknowledge that requiring Tavera to seek out an omission on Taylor's part is ludicrous, and that Taylor was obligated to disclose that co-defendant evidence to Tavera or suffer a Brady violation.
Materiality and Bagley
No surprises in this case; materiality of the co-defendant's statements was determined by the Bagley standard, and the statements were clearly the kind of evidence that would have cast doubt on the trial's result.
Taylor and his colleges may be upset about the trial, but any possible ethics violations (the Sixth Circuit probably already reported Taylor) might sting more than having to retry a drug case.
- Brady, Brady, Brady: SCOTUS Hears Smith v. Cain Nov. 8 (FindLaw's U.S. Supreme Court Blog)
- Ambush With Undisclosed Evidence OK if Inculpatory, Not Exculpatory? (FindLaw's U.S. 6th Circuit Blog)
- Feds Can't Deport Defendant's Only Exculpatory Witness (FindLaw's U.S. 9th Circuit Blog)
- 6th Circuit Denies Appeal on Exculpatory Evidence Issue (FindLaw's U.S. 6th Circuit Blog)