A basic legal right

High court's 1963 ruling in a Maryland case set national standard

July 11, 1999|By Caitlin Francke and Scott Higham | Caitlin Francke and Scott Higham,SUN STAFF

The concept of disclosing evidence dates to the American Revolution. To ensure fair trials, the nation's founders believed that the accused should be able to challenge evidence, and they incorporated that guarantee into the Constitution.

Thirty-six years ago, the right to view evidence was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in Brady vs. Maryland. John L. Brady, charged with murder in Anne Arundel County, asked to see statements that his co-defendant had provided to police. Prosecutors turned over statements -- but not the one that said the co-defendant confessed to the killing.

In 1963, the Supreme Court ruled that that was unconstitutional and upheld a lower court's decision that overturned Brady's death sentence. At one point, Brady was just days from his scheduled execution date. "Society wins not only when the guilty are convicted, but when criminal trials are fair," the decision said.

The Brady ruling has since become a national legal standard. In Maryland, prosecutors are required to disclose evidence 25 days after defendants are arraigned, particularly when it is "exculpatory," meaning it implicates others in the crime or speaks to the defendant's innocence.

But in Baltimore, evidence problems have persisted for years, and court administrators have taken few meaningful steps to address them, according to attorneys, judges and officials who oversee the courthouse.

Police and prosecutors are at odds over who is to blame for failing to provide evidence, causing delays, dismissals of criminal charges and wrongful convictions. But the ultimate responsibility for revealing evidence rests with the state's attorney's office.

Prosecutors are responsible for deciding what evidence to release. They are permitted to withhold their notes and personal opinions and the names of witnesses who face "substantial" risk if their identities are revealed before trial.

If prosecutors violate the law, judges can prohibit witnesses from testifying, suppress evidence or dismiss cases entirely. Judges can also recommend sanctions against prosecutors, including disbarment.

But in Baltimore, sanctions are rarely imposed -- if at all.

"I don't recall any [prosecutors] that have ever received a public sanction for that kind of violation," said Melvin Hirshman, counsel to the Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission, which is responsible for investigating legal misconduct. Hirshman has been with the commission for 18 years.

Pub Date: 07/11/99

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