As a criminal defendant in South Carolina, you have the constitutional right to a fair trial. Among other things, this means that you have the right to ensure that the judge or jury hears all relevant evidence—including evidence in the government’s possession that is favorable to your defense.
So, what happens if prosecutors hide this evidence?
Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon scenario. In fact, The Appeal, a nonprofit dedicated to exposing flaws in the U.S. criminal justice system, refers to prosecutors withholding evidence as an “epidemic.” While the good news is that defendants have clear legal rights when prosecutors hide exculpatory evidence, asserting these rights often proves challenging.
Understanding Brady Violations: When Prosecutors Withhold Exculpatory Evidence
Withholding exculpatory evidence is so common that it has its own legal term: A Brady violation. As the Legal Information Institute (LII) explains:
“The Brady Rule . . . requires prosecutors to disclose materially exculpatory evidence in the government’s possession to the defense. . . . ‘Brady material’ or evidence the prosecutor is required to disclose under this rule includes any evidence favorable to the accused–evidence that goes towards negating a defendant’s guilt, that would reduce a defendant’s potential sentence, or evidence going to the credibility of a witness.”
While there used to be a requirement for defendants to request exculpatory evidence before courts would find a Brady violation, this is no longer the case. As the LII further explains, “the Supreme Court has eliminated the requirement for a defendant to have requested favorable information, stating that the Prosecution has a constitutional duty to disclose.”
Even so, the prosecution’s failure to disclose evidence that is favorable to a defendant does not constitute a Brady violation in all cases. As noted in the quote from LII above, the evidence in question must be both “material” and “exculpatory.” For evidence to be considered “material,” it must have the potential to influence the judge’s or jury’s decision regarding guilt. For evidence to be considered “exculpatory,” it must be significant enough that it could reasonably lead to an acquittal.
What types of evidence can qualify as “material” and “exculpatory”? Some possible examples include:
- Physical evidence that indicates you might not have committed the crime
- Police reports or other records that indicate you might not have committed the crime
- Evidence of police misconduct (i.e., racial profiling or violating your Miranda rights)
- Information about a deal between the prosecution and an informant
- Information that discredits a witness or casts doubt on a witness’s testimony
- Information that casts doubt on the truthfulness of an alleged victim’s story
It is important to note, however, that the potential impact of evidence is judged on a case-by-case basis. In other words, evidence that might trigger a Brady violation in one case won’t necessarily trigger a Brady violation in another. The key question is whether the judge or jury in your case would be likely to rule in your favor if the evidence at issue was properly disclosed.
How Do You Prove the Prosecution is Withholding Evidence?
If you believe the prosecution is withholding evidence in your case, you have a few primary options available. Depending on the circumstances of your case, it may be possible to prove a Brady violation by:
- Using Other Evidence That Is Available – In some cases, it will be possible to use one piece of evidence (or multiple pieces of evidence) to prove that the prosecution is withholding another piece of evidence that is directly relevant to your defense.
- Filing a Brady Motion – Another option is to file a Brady motion, which compels the prosecution to disclose any material and exculpatory evidence in its possession. In addition to disclosing any evidence they have intentionally withheld, prosecutors must also determine whether they have inadvertently failed to disclose any material and exculpatory evidence in the government’s possession.
- Exposing the Violation At Trial – A third option is to expose the violation at trial. By questioning witnesses and presenting other evidence, your defense lawyer may be able to show that evidence is being withheld.
Are You Entitled to a “Not Guilty” Verdict if Prosecutors Withhold Exculpatory Evidence?
If prosecutors withhold exculpatory evidence in your case, this does not automatically entitle you to a “not guilty” verdict. Rather, the appropriate remedy will depend on the effect of the non-disclosure on your case. If it is still early in your case, the judge might decide that the Brady violation has not impacted your right to justice and your case should move forward. The judge may also simply require that the prosecution produce the evidence so that it can receive due consideration during your trial.
However, if neither of these outcomes adequately protect your right to justice, then you may be entitled to a mistrial or to have your charges dismissed. Having your charges dismissed is the best-case scenario, and you will want to work closely with your defense lawyer to target this outcome if it is warranted.
What If You Find Out After Your Trial that the Prosecution Withheld Exculpatory Evidence?
If you discover that the prosecution withheld exculpatory evidence after the fact, this is a different situation entirely. An unjust conviction can entitle you to a new trial, if not a reversal and dismissal. You may also be able to seek relief based on prosecutorial misconduct. Here, too, you will need to work with an experienced defense lawyer who can examine the facts of your case, determine if the withheld evidence was material and exculpatory, and determine the best way to seek justice for your wrongful conviction.
Discuss Your Case with Rock Hill, SC Defense Lawyer Michael L. Brown, Jr.
If you believe prosecutors have withheld exculpatory evidence in your criminal case, we encourage you to contact us promptly for a free consultation. To discuss your case with Rock Hill, SC criminal defense lawyer Michael L. Brown, Jr. in confidence as soon as possible, call 803-328-8822 or tell us how we can reach you online now.