A pending Supreme Court appeal out of Louisiana may have major ramifications to due process standards.
Since 1963, Brady vs. Maryland has been one of the most important due process rulings in America. The landmark case demands that exculpatory evidence, the kind that could be withheld to strengthen a prosecutor’s case, be shared with the defense “where the evidence is material either to guilt or to punishment.”
It is held that exculpatory evidence is “material” if “there is a reasonable probability that his conviction or sentence would have been different had these materials been disclosed.”
But now the American Bar Association has filed a brief seeking to broaden the meaning of that ruling in defense of Juan Smith.
Smith was lone person charged and convicted in the murders of five men who were, all agree, killed by a group of gunmen. His case with the Supreme Court alleges that prosecutors failed to turn over exculpatory evidence, which in this case includes the confession of another man and the contradictory statements of a surviving witness. Both would have an impact on how Smith was judged.
The ABA brief doesn’t address Smith’s claims directly, and is instead more concerned with the broader ethical questions. The brief asks the court to recognize that the obligation to disclose exculpatory evidence before the trial is separate and broader than the constitutional standards Brady established.
Already 48 states have professional conduct standards that, the brief states, require disclosure regardless of materiality. It will be up to the Supreme Court to decide if making these state standards constitutional standards will lead to a more just society, or just one in which more defense attorneys cry foul.