America’s criminal justice system operates on the principle that each defendant is innocent until proven guilty. From that perspective, prosecutors should not care about “winning” a case under any circumstances. They should care about doing justice.
Sadly, this isn’t always how things work. In fact, there have been many instances in which prosecutors withheld exculpatory evidence (meaning evidence favorable to the defendant) in an effort to convict individuals – even in cases where the evidence showed that the defendant was innocent.
Although this practice was barred by a 1963 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, it remains all too common. But here in New York, powerful reform legislation was recently passed that gives defendants a much more even playing field by forcing prosecutors to disclose virtually all evidence gathered in the investigation, including:
- 911 calls
- Police reports
- Witness statements
- Electronic recordings
- Grand jury transcripts
- Photographs from the crime scene
- Lab reports
- Evidence related to expert opinion and testimony
Under the new laws, prosecutors do not get to decide which evidence they believe is exculpatory. Instead, they need to turn over the entire evidence file. Moreover, the evidence must be turned over early in the process (within 15 days of arraignment), which is intended to fight the longstanding (and unethical) practice of “trial by ambush.” This occurs when prosecutors withhold certain evidence until late in the process, keeping defendants in the dark about their trial chances in an effort to force a guilty plea.
It is important to remember that a conviction alone isn’t justice. Indeed, convicting someone despite knowing (or strongly suspecting) he is innocent is the exact opposite of justice. Hopefully, this reform package will eliminate or greatly reduce the wrongful convictions that have been a stain on New York’s criminal justice system for decades.