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What is the Brady rule?

A major Supreme Court case recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. The case, known as Brady v. Maryland, has played a large role in many criminal appeals cases. The highest court in the nation used the appeal made by a convicted criminal to declare that prosecutors are constitutionally obligated to share any evidence that may lessen a sentence or negate a charge against the defense. The ruling came in 1963.

Despite the fact that many people praise this judgment, the actual ruling struggles to get enforced. The well-known exoneration of John Thompson, a man who was on death row for more than a dozen years, proves this. According to experts, many prosecutors violate the Brady rule. A law professor commenting on the matter noted that it is impossible to know how many violations related to the ruling occur because many are only discovered by chance.

For instance, the aforementioned man who was wrongly convicted was unaware of a blood test that would have given him his freedom had his prosecutors presented the results as the Brady rule said they must do. But many prosecutors fail to play by the rules, putting innocent individuals away because they ignore the Supreme Court ruling, largely because there is not a legitimate way to enforce it. After the ruling was originally made, many questions remained: What would happen if exculpatory evidence was withheld by the prosecution? Would prosecutors be punished? How? And would the defendant receive a new trial?

Instead of giving Thompson his freedom, prosecutors locked the man away. Just one month before the man was going to be executed, his legal team--underscoring their importance--found that the results from a blood test had been hidden by the prosecution. It was a chance discovery that led to a retrial during which Thompson was acquitted of all charges. The man was awarded $14 million by the jury as well, the entire sum to be paid by his prosecutor. That verdict was overthrown by the U.S. Supreme Court, though.

Source:  The Atlantic, "Prosecutors Shouldn't Be Hiding Evidence From Defendants" Andrew Cohen, May. 13, 2013

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