In recent years, more and more states have passed discovery laws that require prosecutors to share key evidence, such as witness statements and police reports, with the defense early on in criminal cases. Sadly, according to a recent New York Times article, the state of New York continues to buck this trend, remaining one of 10 states left in the country that allows prosecutors to share evidence on their own timetable, sometimes right up until the start of trial or not at all if a plea deal is on the table.
Under the Brady law, prosecutors are obligated to share exculpatory evidence with defense attorneys. But as the New York Times article points out, “the Supreme Court never set deadlines, and lower courts have split over whether Brady material must be turned over before a plea.” This means that prosecutors can delay the discovery process for months or even years. In turn, defendants surrender to pressure to take unfair plea deals to avoid long jail time while waiting for prosecutors to turn over evidence, or harsh prison sentences that could ensue from unfavorable verdicts at trial—all of this without knowing whether prosecutors actually possess credible evidence of guilt.
Ultimately, it’s possible that many of those taking these pleas are, in fact, innocent. As the Times notes: “People held in jail are more likely to plead guilty, two University Pennsylvania studies show, not because they are more likely to be guilty but because that is often the surest way to get home more quickly.”
While criminal justice advocates in New York have spent years pushing for legislative reform that would set new rules for discovery, district attorneys have successfully dashed those efforts. But the tide may be changing.
As the New York Times reports, the Innocence Project, the Legal Aid Society and others are supporting an effort by the New York State Bar Association to secure the passage of a bill “requiring prosecutors to automatically turn over police reports, witness names and statements, and grand jury testimony early in a case.” Concurrently, the New York court system is “considering providing judges with a new tool to ensure that prosecutors turn over potentially exculpatory information,” writes the Times. Under these guidelines, prosecutors would be required to turn over evidence 30 days before trial.
To read the article in its entirety, click here.