Today in 1963: Brady v. Maryland is decided

May 13, 2011

Today in Legal HistoryImagine if during a criminal trial, the prosecution had evidence that the defendant actually didn’t commit the crime he was accused of.

What if the prosecution wasn’t required by any specific rule of law to disclose that evidence to either the defense or the court?

Before a 1963 Supreme Court ruling, those suppositions were reality.

That ruling, Brady v. Maryland, was decided 48 years ago on May 13, and it left a massive impact on the realms of criminal procedure and constitutional law to this day.

The case was an appeal from a murder trial for John Brady, who was convicted despite his insistence that, while he was involved in the act, he did not commit the murder himself.

However, another man, Donald Boblit, was tried for the same murder, and also found guilty.  In the course of that trial, the prosecution had acquired a written statement from Boblit confessing to the murder.

The prosecution withheld this evidence during Brady’s trial, despite the defense’s request for Boblit’s written statements, and as a result, Brady was found guilty and received the death sentence.

After this came to the attention of Brady’s attorney, he appealed for post-conviction relief from the sentence because of what happened.

The case eventually reached the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court, affirming the Maryland Court of Appeals, ruled that even though the withheld evidence did not completely clear Brady, it would have served to reduce his sentence to life imprisonment.

Therefore, the prosecution’s actions in withholding any evidence favorable to the defendant violated Brady’s due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to a fair trial.

The Brady ruling has only expanded since.

Supreme Court BuildingFor example, even after the Brady ruling, prosecutors had no duty to actively disclose exculpatory evidence.

1976’s U.S. v. Agurs changed that, holding that the prosecution must disclose such evidence regardless of whether the defense has asked for it.

In 1972’s Giglio v. U.S., the Supreme Court broadened the definition of exculpatory evidence to include impeachment evidence, or evidence that can be used to undermine a witness’s credibility.

1985’s U.S. v. Bagley further cemented that rule.

1995’s Kyles v. Whitley took the prosecution’s duty even further, holding that the prosecution has an affirmative duty to obtain and disclose all exculpatory evidence in possession of anyone acting on behalf of the prosecution.

In short, the prosecution may violate the Brady rule by excluding evidence they didn’t even know about.

Today, Brady is a seminal part of the criminal law field.

Exculpatory evidence is more commonly known to criminal lawyers as “Brady material.”

Because of the power the government has in convicting and sentencing individuals accused of criminal acts, the process needs to be just and transparent.

Brady has been and continues to be instrumental is ensuring that criminal defendants receive as fair and impartial of a trial as possible.