Discovering discovery

Evidence rules: Baltimore state's attorney takes an important step to preserve criminal justice integrity.

February 14, 2002

IT'S RIGHT there in the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, between clauses that guarantee a trial by a jury of your peers and the right to defense counsel.

"In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right ... to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him."

Finally, Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy is making an effort to ensure that fundamental right is not violated. This week, she announced that her office will employ an "open file review" policy that will permit defense attorneys to peruse just about any part of a prosecutor's file, rather than having to wait for the state to turn over relevant evidence. It's an important decision that could boost both the effectiveness of criminal prosecutions and city dwellers' faith in the system.

For at least the last 2 1/2 years, Ms. Jessamy's office has been under pressure to do better with discovery, as it's called, in criminal prosecutions. Her prosecutors have seen several high-profile cases crumble because judges found they didn't properly inform defense counsel of witnesses or other evidence against their clients.

In truth, the botched cases make up a fraction of the office's total workload, and lawyers on Ms. Jessamy's staff have conducted several in-house training sessions for prosecutors to help cut down on discovery errors.

But the fact that the problems continue in any form (an accused murderer walked just two weeks ago partly because of discovery errors before his trial) makes Ms. Jessamy's decision a good idea.

By opening entire files to defense attorneys, Ms. Jessamy is effectively eliminating the possibility that her lawyers could be accused of withholding evidence. In turn, that should eliminate at least one reason suspected criminals can avoid prosecution in Baltimore.

We have to wonder why Ms. Jessamy waited so long to implement this policy, and how many cases might have been salvaged had she adopted this stance in 1999, when the issue of discovery became an area of serious concern. Still, she deserves credit for fixing the problem now -- and city residents will be better off for her efforts.

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