Victory for Criminal Defendants

Discovery is the process by which each side in a legal dispute is entitled to receive information from the other side. Usually in a criminal matter, discovery goes one way – from the prosecution to the defense. That’s because in a criminal matter, the prosecution – through the police – such as the Raleigh Police Department – and associated agencies such as Child Protective Services receives information about the criminal investigation into the matter.

There are three legal frameworks in which a person is entitle to discovery in North Carolina – statutory, state constitution, and the federal constitution.

North Carolina’s statutory discovery provisions for felonies is located at N.C.G.S. Chapter 15A, Article 48 basically creates what’s called an “open file discovery” system whereby the Defense is entitled to “the complete files of all law enforcement and prosecutorial agencies involved in the investigation.”

In addition to these broad protections under the NC General Statutes, defendants in North Carolina are entitled to discovery under the North Carolina Constitution and the United States Constitution.

The basic constitutional law governing discovery under the federal constitution was developed in the 1960s principally in a case called Brady v. Maryland which requires the government to turn over everything that’s exculpatory. Subsequent cases have held that exculpatory evidence may be evidence that is favorable to the defendant at sentencing. Still other cases have held that the prosecution must make a good faith review of agency files for exculpatory material – the prosecution may not plead ignorance by failing to inspect police files. And other cases have held that even confidential material in Child Protective Services or school records may be subject to disclosure, sometimes following an in camera review by the trial judge.

This case law applies to the states and well as the federal government.

Today, the Supreme Court reaffirmed its commitment to Brady and the rule that the defense is entitled to exculpatory information.

Juan Smith was convicted of killing five people in 1995 when a group of men busted into a home in search of money and drugs and, ultimately, opened fire on the occupants.

Smith was the only person tried for the murders based solely on eyewitness testimony of a survivor. Elsewhere I’ve written about how eyewitness testimony is unreliable. People often don’t really remember events as accurately as they think they do.

In this case, prosecutors did not have any DNA, fingerprints, weapons, or other physical evidence.

It later turned out that prosecutors failed to reveal to the Defense reports of interviews with the witness. In one of the interviews, the witness told prosecutors that he could not describe the killers, except to say they were black men. Several days later, he had told police that he had not seen any of the peoples’ faces. Yet months later in a trial the witness was supposedly sure Juan Smith was the killer.

There was no question, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority, that the reports should have been turned over under Brady v. Maryland, a 1963 Supreme Court decision that requires prosecutors to provide favorable evidence to the defense. The question for the justices was only whether the failure mattered — that is, in the words of a 2009 decision, whether “there is a reasonable probability that, had the evidence been disclosed, the result of the proceeding would have been different.”

This ruling reaffirms the importance that the Court has assigned to the prosecution’s obligation to turn over all discoverable (meaning, in this case, exculpatory) information to the defense.

Damon Chetson

Damon Chetson is a Board Certified Specialist in State and Federal Criminal Law. He represents people charged with serious and minor offenses in Raleigh, Wake County, and the Eastern District of North Carolina. Call (919) 352-9411.