Vol. 14 No. 8- Major U.S. Supreme Court Decision Regarding Brady v. Maryland

July 20, 1999

To: All Police Chiefs and Sheriffs

From: Martin J. Mayer


On June 17, 1999, the United States Supreme Court issued a major decision regarding the prosecutor’s obligation pursuant to Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963). The Court reinforced the conclusion it stated in prior decisions that a prosecutor has a “. . . broad duty of disclosure” because the prosecutor’s “. . . interest . . .in a criminal prosecution is not that it shall win a case, but that justice shall be done.” Nonetheless, the Court went on to state that ” . . . there is never a real “Brady violation” unless the non-disclosure was so serious that there is a reasonable probability that the suppressed evidence would have produced a different verdict.”

In the case of Strickler v. Greene (1999) 99 DAR 6091, Strickler was prosecuted for, and convicted of, first degree murder. The prosecution withheld exculpatory evidence regarding inconsistent statements made by the prosecution’s primary witness to the homicide. The Court reaffirmed the holding in Brady “that the suppression by the prosecution of evidence favorable to an accused . . . violates due process where the evidence is material either to guilt or to punishment, irrespective of the good faith or bad faith of the prosecution.”

Because the Commonwealth of Virginia had a prosecutor’s open file policy – meaning that the defendant and counsel had access to the prosecutor’s files – the lower Court held that “reasonably competent counsel would have sought discovery in state court” of the police files, and that in response to this “simple request, it is likely the state court would have ordered the production of the files.” The United States Supreme Court, however, held that the mere fact that the attorney could have made a demand does not remove from the prosecutor the obligation to produce Brady material.

The Supreme Court stated that “in order to comply with Brady, therefore, the individual prosecutor has a duty to learn of any favorable evidence known to the others acting on the government’s behalf in this case, including the police.” Furthermore, the Court stated that “. . . under Brady an inadvertent non-disclosure has the same impact on the fairness of the proceedings as deliberate concealment.”

The Court held that there are three components of a true Brady violation: the evidence at issue must be favorable to the accused, either because it is exculpatory, or because it is impeaching; that evidence must have been suppressed by the State, either willfully or inadvertently; and prejudice must have ensued.” Once again, as pointed out above, the prejudice would arise “if there is a reasonable probability that, had the evidence been disclosed to the defense, the result of the proceeding would have been different.”

In this particular case, however, the Court ruled that although the prosecutor had an obligation to inform the defense of the witness’ inconsistent statements, they would not have changed the outcome of the trial. The Petitioner “must convince us that there is a reasonable probability that the results of the trial would have been different if the suppressed documents had been disclosed to the defense.”

What Does this Mean to Your Department?

Once again, the United States Supreme Court is reinforcing the previous finding that “the individual prosecutor has the duty to learn of any favorable evidence known to the others acting on the government’s behalf in this case, including the police.”(Emphasis added) Even the inadvertent withholding of this type of material could result in the reversal of the conviction. The Court again reinforced that Brady evidence is material if it is either exculpatory or impeachment evidence.

The obligation, therefore, is on those “acting on the government’s behalf” to inform the prosecutor of the existence of information in its possession which could be classified as Brady material. The prosecutor will then determine whether or not that evidence meets the requirements of Brady regarding the reasonable probability that it would affect the outcome of the trial. It is, in fact, only the prosecutor who can make that decision. Once again, therefore, we suggest that every chief of police and sheriff meet with his or her county district attorney to determine how the prosecutor wants this process implemented.

Finally, we suggest that you always confer with your department’s legal advisor in addressing these issues. Should you have any questions or wish to discuss anything set forth above, please do not hesitate to call us at (562) 590-8280.