The following opinion was published by the New York Daily News on January 22, 2018.
The scales of justice are skewed against criminal defendants in New York’s courts by prosecutors’ power to keep key evidence in the dark. Of this, a wave of wrongful convictions overturned leaves no doubt.
New York presently has among the nation’s most woefully lax laws of discovery, the process by which district attorneys deliver the likes of surveillance videos, police reports, medical tests and grand jury transcripts to the defense.
It’s at the heart of what makes criminal courts fair: equal access to information, so the accused is fully aware of, and can scrutinize and challenge, the case against him or her.
Into a wide gulf between the revolution demanded by defense attorneys and DAs’ grudging acknowledgment reform may be due, Gov. Cuomo stepped up last week by including in the state budget a bill that would at long last make sure prosecutors share their evidence with defense attorneys promptly and in full.
The state Legislature must not miss this moment to make surprise witnesses, last-minute data dumps and other prosecution games a thing of the past — with a keen eye to demanding DAs share as much information with the defense as quickly as possible.
Look to Brooklyn, once a factory line of discovery abuse and the wrongful convictions that come of it. Now the Kings County DA is a model for the state — sharing files, including witness details, ASAP, with reasonable exceptions where safety is at risk. Meanwhile crime in the borough continues its decline.
New York DAs more typically heed federal law requiring them to turn over information favorable to the defendant well ahead of trial. For anything else, just about anything goes, and that means some prosecutors wait until the very last minute to dump a pile of evidence on the desks of typically overloaded defense attorneys.
The prosecution’s witnesses? Good luck finding them before they’re on the stand.
Because most defendants end up striking plea bargains instead of facing a jury, many agree to conviction and sentencing without the faintest sense of what prosecutors may have had in store for them, even if it’s evidence not fit to wrap fish in.
Cuomo wants to make prosecutors’ disclosure of materials to the defense automatic, with a succession of swift and strict deadlines, starting 15 days after arraignment .
Progress! Now keep going. Wide latitude Cuomo’s bill gives DAs to withhold witness and other information they claim could compromise a case could put just about any evidence off limits. Brooklyn shows prosecutors can do so much better than keep their cards hidden.
Albany lawmakers should see Cuomo and raise him one.