The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that prosecutors must tell prosecutors how often specific police officers lie on the stand.
I’m not surprised the prosecutors refuse to tell defense attorneys about cops who lie, but I am surprised that the courts have let it slide so long.
Cops lie. Cops lie enough there’s a term for it: testilying. Honest prosecutors don’t want lying cops on the stand dirtying up their case with their impeachable testimony. Unfortunately, police unions are powerful enough to thwart this small bit of accountability. “Brady lists” are compiled by prosecutors. They contain the names of officers whose track record for telling the truth is so terrible prosecutors don’t want to have to rely on their… shall we say… misstatements in court.
Unfortunately, these lists are often closely-guarded secrets. Judges aren’t made aware of officers’ penchant for lying. Neither are defendants in many cases. But they’re called “Brady” lists because they’re supposed to be disclosed to defendants. The “Brady” refers to Brady v. Maryland, where it was decided prosecutors are obligated to turn over possibly exculpatory information to defendants to ensure their right to a fair trial. This includes anything that might indicate the cop offering testimony might not be telling the truth.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has ruled [PDF] prosecutors have an obligation to inform defendants of officers who have made their “Brady” lists. Two cops who made false statements in a use-of-force report were granted immunity for their testimony in front of a grand jury. The district attorney prosecuting a different criminal case handed this information over to the defendant. The cops challenged this move, claiming their grand jury immunity should have prevented this exculpatory information from being given to the defendant and discussed in open court. (h/t Matthew Segal)
The cops argued there’s no constitutional duty to disclose this information (under the US Constitution or the Commonwealth’s) unless failing to do so would alter the outcome of the trial by creating reasonable doubt where none previously existed. The Supreme Judicial Court says that argument is wrong under both Constitutions.
First, prosecutors have more than a constitutional duty to disclose exculpatory information; they also have a broad duty under Mass. R. Crim. P. 14 (a)(1)(iii) to disclose “[a]ny facts of an exculpatory nature.” This duty is not limited to information so important that its disclosure would create a reasonable doubt that otherwise would not exist; it includes all information that would “tend to” indicate that the defendant might not be guilty or “tend to” show that a lesser conviction or sentence would be appropriate.
Second, even if prosecutors had only their constitutional obligation to disclose, and not the broad duty under our rules, we would not want prosecutors to withhold exculpatory information if they thought they could do so without crossing the line into a violation of the defendant’s right to a fair trial.
This is a SIGNIFICANT expansion to the Brady rule. The SJC is saying that the information does not have to show innocence, but something that might lead to some reasonable doubt with some jurors, or even that it might result in a more lenient sentence.
This is a big change.
The cops also argued their immunity from prosecution during their grand jury testimony should shield them from any adverse consequences. Wrong again, says the court. The immunity only covers prosecution for the admitted crimes. It is not a shield against reputational damage that may result from this information being made public or handed over to defendants.
The Court wraps this up by laying down the law: this is Brady info and it needs to be disclosed to defendants. The SJC is not f%$#ing around.
[W]e conclude, as did the district attorney, that the prosecutors here have a Brady obligation to disclose the exculpatory information at issue to unrelated criminal defendants in cases where a petitioner is a potential witness or prepared a report in the criminal investigation. That obligation remains even though that information was obtained in grand jury testimony compelled by an immunity order. And the district attorney may fulfill that obligation without prior judicial approval; a judge’s order is needed only for issuance of a protective order limiting the dissemination of grand jury information.
More broadly, we conclude that where a prosecutor determines from information in his or her possession that a police officer lied to conceal the unlawful use of excessive force, whether by him or herself or another officer, or lied about a defendant’s conduct and thereby allowed a false or inflated criminal charge to be prosecuted, the prosecutor’s obligation to disclose exculpatory information requires that the information be disclosed to defense counsel in any criminal case where the officer is a potential witness or prepared a report in the criminal investigation.
That’s the standard in Massachusetts. And bad cops are on notice there’s pretty much nothing they can do to escape the consequences of their own actions. This is as it should be. Now, if the courts could just make sure prosecutors and police departments are actually compiling Brady lists, we’d be set. At least in this Commonwealth.
Having cops revealed to be liars in open court is a good thing, because those cops are going to get torn up on the stands by defense attorneys, and so will be an embarrassment to the force, and not get promoted.
It’s more long-overdue accountability.