Prosecutors in Texas and around the country are required to turn over exculpatory material to the defense. This includes evidence that would be favorable to the defendant, could reduce their sentence if they are found guilty or could be used to impeach the credibility of a prosecution witness. When what is known as Brady material is not disclosed, the defendant’s conviction is overturned and a new trial is ordered even if the prosecutor was unaware that they possessed the material or failed to turn it over inadvertently. However, for this to happen, the undisclosed material must be both favorable to the defendant and material to the facts of the case.
The origin of the Brady rule
The Brady rule gets its name from the 1963 case Brady v. Maryland. The case involved a man who was convicted of murder along with an accomplice. The defense later learned that the prosecutor had failed to disclose that the man’s accomplice had confessed to committing the murder and acting alone. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the prosecutor in the case violated the man’s Fourteenth Amendment right to due process under the law when he failed to disclose the confession.
The materiality standard
Convictions are only overturned and new trials ordered when undisclosed Brady material meets the standard for materiality. This means that the outcome of the trial would likely have been different if the jury had known about it. The defendant does not have to prove that the undisclosed evidence alone would have swayed the jury; they must only convince the court that disclosure would have painted the facts of the case in a different light. When making these decisions, appeals judges weight the collective value of the undisclosed material rather than assessing it piece by piece. It is understood that the Brady rule applies when jeopardy is attached and a jury has been sworn in. The courts have been divided on applying the rule when defendants have pleaded guilty to felonies because exculpatory material was withheld during plea negotiations.
When one of their clients was denied due process due to a Brady rule violation, an experienced criminal defense attorney could seek to ensure that the prosecutor involved faces professional sanctions if the violation was a willful one. While prosecutors are usually shielded from civil liability for acts they committed in an official capacity, they could be held in contempt of court and face disciplinary proceedings.