Prosecutors must stop withholding evidence pointing toward innocent defendants
When an Ohio jury convicted Kevin Keith of murder, the jurors had no clue that somebody other than Keith might have been the perpetrator–and that the prosecutor failed to disclose the information during the trial. (For an earlier posting on the Keith case, see “In Justice” April 18.)
The law might seem unfair to those with a certain “law-and-order” outlook about criminal suspects, but the law is clear: prosecutors must reveal information pointing toward innocence of women and men charged with crimes. The U.S. Supreme Court said in Brady v. Maryland (1963) that prosecutors must promote justice, rather than giving priority to winning a case.
Many of the 2300-plus locally elected prosecutors across the United States routinely disclose all material to defendants and their lawyers. Why some prosecutors refuse to institute that practice makes no sense to me. When prosecutors (and police investigators collaborating with prosecutors) selectively withhold evidence, trouble sometimes results.
Prosecutors almost never receive punishment for withholding evidence pointing toward innocence, so the “win-at-all-costs” district attorneys apparently feel they can violate the law without worry. If innocent defendants end up in prison while the actual perpetrators remain at liberty to murder or rape or rob again, too bad.
If defense attorneys are unaware of what lawyers call “exculpatory evidence” because a prosecutor intentionally hides that evidence, the plea bargain or the trial verdict is tainted. To fix the potential miscarriage of justice, all sorts of “luck” must come into play, or the exculpatory evidence will remain hidden forever.
In the Keith case, appellate lawyers have intervened on Keith’s behalf, asking the U.S. Supreme Court to give Keith another chance at fairness, at justice. But the main argument to the Supreme Court does not involve the alleged prosecutorial misconduct directly. Instead, Keith’s lawyers are attacking an Ohio appeals court that ruled against a new trial or other remedial action.
The appeals judges said the evidence allegedly withheld by the prosecutor does not matter in a legal sense. How come? Because the prosecutor presented plenty of evidence at trial indicating Keith’s guilt. Keith’s lawyers say the Ohio appeals judges lack standing to use a “sufficiency of trial evidence” claim as a reason to reject Keith’s petition.
A lot is riding on what the Supreme Court decides. ”In Justice” will follow the petition to the Supreme Court and the aftermath. The outcome will affect not only Keith, but also an untold number of other defendants who are trying to find post-conviction remedies on the way to justice.