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Brady Violations: Police or Prosecutor Misconduct

May 10, 2021

Brady Violations: Police or Prosecutor Misconduct

The term “Brady claim” comes from a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1963: Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83. The court held in Brady that the prosecution has a constitutional duty to disclose evidence that is exculpatory to a criminal defendant, or which can be used by the defendant for impeachment purposes. The duty to disclose Brady material applies even if there is no request by the accused for the prosecution to disclose. If the prosecution fails to disclose evidence that falls under Brady, the defendant may have a legitimate Brady claim of prosecutorial misconduct that may result in a new trial.

What are the elements to a Brady claim?

In Brady, the U.S. Supreme Court set forth the following three elements for determining a Brady violation:

  1. The evidence that the prosecution failed to disclose must be favorable to the accused;

  2. The evidence must have been withheld by the prosecution either willfully or inadvertently; and

  3. The accused must have been prejudiced in his defense by the prosecution’s failure to disclose.

In United States v. Bagley, 473 U.S. 667, 676 (1985), the Court held that favorable evidence includes impeachment evidence as well as exculpatory evidence.

To demonstrate prejudice the accused must show that the outcome of the proceedings would have been different but for the failure to disclose. In Kyles v. Whitley, 514 U.S. 419 (1995), the Court explained it as follows: "The question is not whether the defendant would more likely than not have received a different verdict with the evidence, but whether in its absence he received a fair trial, understood as a trial resulting in a verdict worthy of confidence." Id. at 434.

Examples of Brady evidence

Evidence that potentially falls under the Brady rule for exculpatory and impeachment purposes includes:

  • Witness accounts taken by the government which contradict government witnesses at trial.

  • Witness identification that of the alleged perpetrator that do not match the accused.

  • Pretrial witness statements that are inconsistent with what witnesses testify to at trial.

  • Scientific reports (DNA, fingerprint, firearm toolmarks, etc.).

  • Physical evidence (murder weapon, clothing items, or anything tangible).

  • Digital evidence (audio or video recordings, photographs, cell phone records, etc.)

For example, in Workman v. Commonwealth, 272 Va. 633 (2006) the accused was originally charged with first-degree murder and use of a firearm but convicted of voluntary manslaughter in a shooting death where he claimed self-defense. The central issue was whether one of the individuals involved in the altercation was armed, as Workman claimed they were. Everyone who testified against Workman said nobody else except Workman had a gun,. After Workman was convicted but before he was sentenced, he learned of a pretrial statement to the police by a witness who said they saw the someone besides Workman with a gun. On appeal, the Virginia Supreme Court reversed Workman’s conviction holding that the statement was favorable to his defense for impeachment of the Commonwealth’s witnesses and ordered a new trial.

When can I make a Brady claim?

A Brady claim must be raised as soon as the undisclosed evidence comes to light. Because the evidence is in the government’s possession and control, the defense does not know anything about it to make the claim until the prosecution discloses or someone other person reveals it. Once the evidence comes to light, the claim must be raised as follows:

At Trial or on Appeal: If the defense learns of the undisclosed evidence at trial or on appeal, the defense must raise the claim or make use of the evidence during those stages.

On Habeas Corpus: If the undisclosed evidence is not discovered until after the accused is convicted and the appeal is over, the Brady claim must be raised on habeas within the habeas limitations period (if it has not expired), or within 1-year of discovery of the evidence (if the limitations period already expired).

Defense duty to investigate versus government’s duty to disclose

The defense has an obligation to investigate, but once the prosecution claims it has disclosed Brady material, the defense is entitled to rely on that response. In Strickler v. Greene, 527 U.S. 263 (1999), the Supreme Court stated that “if a prosecutor asserts that he complies with Brady through an open file policy, defense counsel may reasonably rely on that file to contain all materials the State is constitutionally obligated to disclose under Brady.” Id. at 283.

Virginia Post-Conviction Lawyer

Brady violations can happen by mistake or intentionally by overzealous prosecutors who believe the accused is guilty and want to secure a conviction at all cost. You need an attorney who has experience with Brady violations and who would stand up for your right to a fair trial or reversal of your conviction on appeal or habeas. Such an attorney can make sure you get the best outcome in your case. Bryan J. Jones is committed to his clients and will develop a defense strategy tailored just for you. Contact Bryan J. Jones, LLC today.