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New court rule reminds NY prosecutors of their duty to hand over evidence

In 1963, the Supreme Court ruled in Brady v. Maryland that prosecutors are required to provide defendants with any evidence that may be considered favorable to the accused. This means that prosecutors are supposed to turn over every piece of evidence that may cast doubt on the individual's guilt, no matter how slim.

Despite this ruling, however, "Brady violations" -- situations in which the prosecution fails to turn over required evidence -- still occur, and often lead to wrongful convictions. In fact, the New York State Bar Association maintains that Brady violations are among the leading causes of wrongful convictions, as recently reported by the The New York Times. Some estimates even indicate that nearly 40 percent of past exonerations in New York State involved the wrongful withholding of Brady material.

Given the issues associated with Brady violations, it is probably no surprise that a new rule was recently announced that will hopefully help fix the problem.

Provide evidence, or face contempt of court

Last week, Chief Judge Janet DiFiore announced the adoption of a new rule that will "require judges presiding over criminal trials to issue an order notifying and reminding prosecutors [...] of their professional responsibilities," including their responsibility to timely disclose evidence favorable to the accused (Brady material).

Importantly, this new rule places the responsibility of combing through records on prosecutors, and if they fail to do so, they may face punishment, including possible contempt charges. Under the new rule, prosecutors will generally need to provide all required evidence to the defense no later than 30 days before a felony trial, and 15 days before a misdemeanor trial.

The expressed goal of these new rules is to prevent wrongful convictions in New York and "enhance the delivery of justice." And even though this new rule doesn't change the law when it comes to the disclosure of Brady materials, it will educate and inform prosecutors of their legal duties -- and hopefully avoid many wrongful convictions before they have a chance to occur.

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