Democracy word cloud

DAVID BETRAS: August’s ballot decision asking to create a 60% supermajority goes against majority rule

In the 220 years that elapsed since Ohio became a state, the General Assembly has never scheduled a special election for the sole purpose of considering a legislatively initiated constitutional amendment. That streak is about to come to an end. As I write this week’s column, the state’s 88 county boards of election, are preparing to do exactly that. This extraordinary situation provides context for a Civics lesson that I hope will provide voters with the information they need to make an informed decision when—and if-they cast a ballot on August 8.

Attorney David Betras
BKM Managing Partner David Betras

I say “if” because turnout for August specials is incredibly low. For example, only eight percent of the electorate participated in last year’s primaries for seats in the state house and senate. In fact, turnout has been so abysmal that the very same legislators who just scheduled the upcoming election actually voted to do away with them just a few months ago. I’ll have more to say about that in a bit.

For now, back to the Civics lesson. Let’s start with the basics: our form of government. While commonly referred to as democracies, the United States, Ohio, and the other 49 states are democratic republics in which the people vote for the representatives who do the actual governing. The Founding Fathers embraced this model because they believed it was the most effective and efficient way to manage the nation’s affairs.

The principle of majority rule is the engine that drives democratic republics. According to famed mathematician Kenneth May, majority rule is the only “fair” way to conduct elections because it does not allow some votes to count more than others and unlike super majority rules, it does not allow the status quo to prevail even though it received fewer votes.

Is the system perfect? Of course not. When our elected representatives abandon or ignore the will and wishes of their constituents due to corruption, gerrymandering, or the influence of big money, the public justifiably loses faith in government. That is exactly the situation that existed in Ohio at the beginning of the 20th Century. Outraged by a state government that was being sold to the highest bidders, a group of reformers and progressives convinced the voters to convene a Constitutional Convention in 1912.

During weeks of deliberations delegates wrote and voters later approved a proposal that serves as the antidote to unresponsive government: Article 2, Section 1 of the Ohio Constitution which enables citizens to place an amendment directly before voters on a statewide ballot who must approve it by a simple majority vote.

The citizen-initiated amendment process is, as it should be, complicated and laborious. Over the past 111 years, 71 proposals have been placed before the voters, 19 have been approved. Many have improved our quality of life including imposing a10-mill limit on unvoted property taxes, home rule authority for cities and counties, banning smoking in public places, and raising the state’s minimum wage and indexing it to inflation. By any measure, the process has benefited Ohioans.

Which brings us back to the impending unprecedented August election. For a reason I will not address here, the Republican majority in the General Assembly is placing an amendment that will fundamentally change the rules that govern the initiative process on the ballot in  August. Their proposal will raise the threshold for approving initiated amendments from the century-old 50% plus one standard to a 60% supermajority. If passed it will erase the principle that is at the very heart of our system of government and replace it with minority rule.

And, in a final bit of irony, they will only need to secure 50% plus one vote to do it in  election they hope most Ohioans won’t notice.

Constitutional scholar and former Ohio House members Mike Curtin believes trashing Ohio’s 220-year-old tradition of respecting voters is a historic and contemptuous act of bad faith. Fortunately, the voters, thanks to the 1912 Constitutional Convention, will have the final say.

What were they thinking? Why did Alex Murdaugh’s lawyers allow the now convicted killer to testilie for hours on end?

Attorney David Betras
BKM Managing Partner David Betras

Judging by the number of people who have yelled, “Hey Betras, what the xxxx (readers are free to insert the word of their choice) is up with that Murdaugh trial?” I am not the only person who has been obsessed with the sordid saga of the once prominent South Carolina trail lawyer who was recently found guilty of murdering his wife and his son.

Okay, I wasn’t “obsessed” with it, I was consumed by it. I watched every moment of the trial, hours of analysis of each day’s proceedings offered by “expert” criminal lawyers, as well as all of the documentaries, docudramas, and special reports that streamed into my smart TV, smart phone, and laptop.

The discussion and speculation that raged during the trial continues today—much of it focused on Murdaugh’s decision to take the stand. In the immediate wake of his testimony, in which he basically admitted to being a pathological liar who couldn’t tell the truth if his life depended on it, which it did, a number of talking head criminal lawyers told the media the defense team had to allow the accused killer to look the jurors in their collective eyes and refute the charges. One of the pundits, criminal attorney and former prosecutor Mark Eiglarsh told CNN “If you’re going to have somebody testify, having a lawyer who’s smart, who’s been in the courtroom, who’s lied for 20 years … that’s the guy you want on the stand…all it takes is one juror to connect with him emotionally.” 

To be frank, Mr. Eiglarsh and anyone else who thought it was a good idea for Murdaugh to hitch up his pants, take the stand, and admit to being a drug-crazed criminal who did everything but murder his wife and son is just plain stupid—a fact underscored by the verdict.

During my career I have represented numerous clients charged with murder and I have never put one of them on the stand, including those who have literally begged me to allow them to proclaim their innocence in open court. I have adopted this strategy for a number of reasons beginning with the fact that it is not my job to prove my client is innocent, it is the prosecutor’s job to prove they are guilty, and I refuse to do anything that will make that job easier.

And permitting a client to give up their Fifth Amendment protections against self-incrimination by testifying does exactly that.

Think of it this way: the accused takes the stand, I ask them if they committed the crime, they emphatically say no. This has absolutely no impact on jurors who fully expect defendants to say they didn’t do it. I sit down, the prosecutor stands up and immediately begins tearing my client apart limb from limb. Check the video of the Murduagh cross and you’ll see how this works—or I should say how it doesn’t work for the defense.

Clients also ask to take the stand because they fear the jury will believe they are guilty if they just sit quietly as I defend them. I point out that this is, for the most part, not true and that judges are required to instruct jurors that they may not draw any inference from the fact that a defendant does or does not testify—the presumption of innocence that is the beating heart of our judicial system stands.

Whether Murdaugh would have benefited from keeping his mouth shut is a question that will be debated in legal circles for years. One thing is certain, however, testilying for hours on end didn’t help at all.

A message from David Betras to anyone who is being questioned by the police: Shut Up!

Attorney David Betras
BKM Managing Partner David Betras

On a number of occasions, I’ve addressed what people should do if they are stopped and questioned by the police. Here’s an excerpt from an August 2021 blog post on the topic:

“First, if you are stopped by law enforcement and questioned you are under no obligation to do anything other than provide your name and ID.
Second, remember, the police will delay placing you in custody so they can use what you say to establish probable cause for arrest.
Third, your pre-arrest statements are admissible in court.
Fourth: Shut up. What you do not say cannot be used against you.”

That’s right I said just shut up.

I raise the topic today because as New York Times columnist Faraj Manjoo points out in his most recent piece, prosecutors in New Mexico plan to charge actor Alec Baldwin with involuntary manslaughter in the death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchinson. Hutchinson was working on the set of the movie rust when Baldwin pulled the trigger of a gun that was not supposed to be loaded with live ammunition. She was struck by a bullet and died shortly thereafter.

After the shooting Baldwin agreed to be interviewed by police without his attorney present, waived his Miranda rights, and did anything but shut up: “Still, for about an hour, Baldwin not only answered detectives’ many questions about the shooting but also offered his own theories about the incident and suggested the next steps the police might pursue in their investigation.”

As Manjoo notes, “The Fifth Amendment of the Constitution allows Americans to refuse to answer questions from law enforcement. Yet despite the ritualistic incantation of the Miranda warning on every TV police procedural, silence is a right that people can find hard to accept. If you’re convinced of your innocence, aren’t you obligated to help the police solve the matter under investigation? Refusing to talk to the police seems like something people do only when they’ve got something to hide.”

I’ve lost count of how many clients I’ve defended in court because they decided to abandon their Fifth Amendment rights and “help” the police who in turned helped themselves to an arrest.

In the column Manjoo praises the work of law professor and former defense attorney James Duane, one of the nation’s leading proponents of just shutting up when questioned by law enforcement. The video of his lecture “Don’t Talk to the Police,” has been viewed millions of times on YouTube, you should make it millions plus one by watching: https://youtu.be/d-7o9xYp7eE

In his lecture Duane offers this quote from former US Attorney General Robert Jackson: “Any lawyer worth his salt will tell the suspect in no uncertain terms to make no statement to the police under any circumstances.” It’s good to know that AG Jackson, one of the most respected lawyers in the history of American jurisprudence would think I am worth my salt.

“The average American — even if they’re a highly sophisticated college graduate or a law school student — really doesn’t know an awful lot about the many different ways in which even innocent people can regret for the rest of their lives the biggest mistake of their lives, the decision to waive their Fifth Amendment right and agree to talk to the police,” Duane said.

Duane argues that a key danger is that in trying to defend yourself to the police, you may unwittingly admit some wrongdoing. Navigating around such dangers is made all the more difficult because courts have given the police wide leeway to lie to people being interrogated.

“They will lie to you about what crime they are actually investigating,” Duane writes in his book, “whether they regard you as a suspect, whether they plan to prosecute you, what evidence they have against you, whether your answers may help you, whether your statements are off the record, and whether the other witnesses have agreed to talk to them — even about what those witnesses have or have not said.”

Manjoo closes his column with this passage: “The Fifth Amendment is no mere formality. It is among the best defenses against government overreach that Americans enjoy. We should guard it vigorously. Anytime you’re asked to talk to the police about an incident you are involved in, there are just four words you need to say: “I want a lawyer.”

And then please for the love of God, shut up.

Time for a Supreme Court retrospective; ‘goodbye and good riddance’

Three days after assuming the presidency in 2009, Barrack Obama looked House and Senate Republican leaders in the eye and uttered the phrase, “Elections have consequences.” The just-concluded term of the U.S. Supreme Court proves the former president was exactly right — most likely much to his chagrin. I know I have written about the court often over the past few months. Thankfully, this will be the last time I address the topic for a while because the justices are headed off to do whatever they do when they remove their robes and go on vacation. Here is a retrospective on the 2021-2022 term, which, by any measure, was one of the most consequential in history.

I will begin with the biggie: Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the 6-3 decision that overturned Roe v. Wade and tossed nearly a half-century of legal precedent on the trash heap of history. With hours of the decision, Ohio AG David Yost successfully petitioned a federal court to lift a stay on the state’s “heartbeat bill,” which bans abortions after six weeks and does not include an exception for rape or incest. A few days later a 10-year-old girl who was six weeks and three days pregnant as result of a sexual assault was forced to travel to Indiana to receive the medical care she needed.

The 6-3 ruling in New York State Rifle & Pistol Assoc. v. Bruen eviscerated a New York state law that required residents to obtain a permit to carry a weapon and will make it extremely difficult for other states to strengthen their gun safety regulations. Keep in mind, this is the same year in which there were mass shootings in Buffalo, New York; Uvalde, Texas; and the July 4th massacre in Highland Park, Ilinois, where seven people died including the parents of a 2-year-old toddler who was left to wander down the street as her mother and father laid dead.

A number of decisions eroded the constitutional wall the Founding Fathers erected between church and state. Most notable were Carson v. Makin, which will make it easier for state governments to divert tax dollars from public education to religious schools, and Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, which cleared the way for prayer at public school football games and other events.

The conservative 6-3 majority struck a blow in West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency by curtailing the EPA’s ability to order existing power plants to reduce their carbon emissions. Ironically, this means that if more kids are born as a result of Dobbs it will be more difficult for them to breathe. Just saying.

Because the federal government has not broken enough promises to or heaped enough indignity upon Native Americans, the Court ruled against the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta. Conservative Neil Gorsuch joined the court’s three liberals in dissent arguing that the decision reneges on the federal government’s centuries-old promise that tribes would remain forever free from interference by state authorities.

Because even a stopped clock is right twice a day, I will acknowledge that the justices ruled correctly in a few cases, including Biden v. Texas, a 5-4 ruling that permitted the current administration to reverse a Trump-era policy that requires asylum seekers to remain in Mexico while their cases are reviewed in U.S. courts. And Biden v. Missouri approved a federal vaccine mandate for health care workers employed at facilities that receive Medicare and Medicaid funding.

So, with that, I will say goodbye and good riddance to SCOTUS’s 2021-2022 term and take a three-month break from writing about the Supreme Court.

Leak of Alito’s draft Roe v Wade opinion threatens American jurisprudence

Judge dismisses felony charges against former Liberty Schools Superintendent Joe Nohra

In a ruling handed down on Wednesday, December 30, 2021, Trumbull County Common Pleas Court Judge Ronald Rice dismissed six felony counts that had been lodged against former Liberty Local Schools Superintendent Joe Nohra earlier this year. The ruling came in response to a motion filed by Atty. David Betras arguing that the statutes under which Mr. Nohra had been indicted were unconstitutionally vague. In a well reasoned six-page decision Judge Rice agreed:

“Therefore, upon reconsideration of Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss Counts 1-6 of the Indictment for Vagueness, the Court finds by clear and convincing evidence the Defendant has presented a presently existing set of facts that make the statutes unconstitutional and void when applied to those facts. The Defendant’s Motion is well taken and the same is hereby granted.” The decision may be viewed and downloaded here: Rice dismissal of Nohra felony charges

Atty. Betras hailed the decision as a victory for Mr. Nohra and the justice system. “As we have said previously, Mr. Nohra, at the discrection of the school board, and with approval of legal counsel, took appropriate action to protect the district and the taxpayers. He should have been commended instead of prosecuted,” Betras said.

Media coverage of the dismissal may be accessed by following these links: Vindicator       WKBN     WFMJ

Atty. Betras said BKM is prepared to mount a vigorous defense against the remaining misdemeanor charges that were included in the indictment.

When Mr. Nohra was indicted Atty. Betras pledges that the BKM legal team would aggressively defend Mr. Nohra in court and in the court of public opinion. “We simply won’t allow the people we represent to be smeared or damaged by rumors and innuendo,” he said. The firm also released the following statement on Mr. Nohra’s behalf:

“Mr. Nohra emphatically and categorically denies the baseless allegations contained in the indictment handed down yesterday by the Trumbull County Grand Jury.

After being presented with credible evidence that an employee of the Liberty Local Schools was engaged in activities that constituted theft in office, Mr. Nohra, with the knowledge and approval of the members of the Liberty Local Schools Board of Education and the Board’s legal counsel, initiated an investigation that resulted in the suspect employee’s resignation from the school system.

The actions described in the indictment were conducted in conjunction with and for the sole purpose of facilitating the above-referenced investigation. The members of the Board of Education and the Board’s legal counsel approved the use of surveillance equipment before it was installed. In addition, written Board policy authorizes the superintendent to utilize surveillance equipment when necessary and with approval of the Board which Mr. Nohra sought and received.

Mr. Nohra ensured that the Board members and their legal counsel were kept fully informed during each step of the investigation, were apprised of the evidence of wrongdoing that was gathered and were aware of its outcome. 

My client is both bewildered and astounded that he now faces criminal charges for taking decisive steps to protect the taxpayers and looks forward to defending himself against these ludicrous accusations.”

Supreme Court will decide unprecedented number of blockbuster cases during 2021-2022 term

Attorney David BetrasLike kids counting the days until Christmas, attorneys, legal scholars, and jurisprudence junkies, including me, eagerly anticipate the first Monday in October, the day the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) begins its new term each year. We can barely control ourselves as we wait for the justices to decide which of the 7,000 cases submitted to them annually become one of the 150 or so they hear.

Under normal circumstances, the justices go about their work in relative obscurity because the cases on the Court’s docket, which is dominated by battles between states over water rights, business disputes, and arguments about arcane legal principles, do not impact the lives of most Americans or generate much media coverage aside from long, jargon-packed pieces posted on SCOTUSblog. Believe me, if you have insomnia, spend a few minutes on the site and you will be sleeping in no time.

This year, however, is far from normal. Although the 2021-2022 term is less than two weeks old, the Court is under intense scrutiny because the justices have agreed to hear a number of cases that may ignite legal and societal firestorms while further undermining the public’s waning support for the Court which was once widely regarded, in the words of Alexander Hamilton, as the “least dangerous” branch of government.

Entrance to US Supreme CourtChief among the potential blockbusters is Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which centers on a Mississippi law which, with few exceptions, prohibits abortions after 15 weeks of gestation. Dobbs gives the Court the opportunity to overturn  Roe v. Wade which established a woman’s right to choose and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which protects that right until viability. It is, quite simply, the most important reproductive rights case to come before the Court in 30 years.

New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. Bruen is the first significant firearms case to come before the Court since the 2008 ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller that extended Second Amendment protections to individuals. Bruen arrives at the Court on appeal from the 2nd Circuit which upheld New York state’s strict gun licensure law which requires residents to obtain a permit to possess a firearm and totally bans open carry. A decision in favor of the Association could gut gun laws across the nation.

Like Bruen, Carson v. Makin which challenges Maine’s prohibition against using state funds to pay tuition for schools that offer religious instruction has nationwide implications. The justices will decide if Maine’s law violates the free exercise, establishment, and equal protection clauses of the Constitution. If they so hold, voucher programs across the U.S., including Ohio’s will be impacted and taxpayer dollars will begin flowing to schools that promote religion.

Other important cases include Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College which poses a lethal threat to race-based college admission programs,  CVS Pharmacy Inc. v. Doe which involves alleged discrimination against persons with HIV, as well as cases focused on national security, campaign finance laws, and Texas’ new draconian abortion restrictions.

The last time the Court ruled on this many consequential cases in one term was, well, never. Throughout history, cases of similar magnitude to the ones on SCOTUS’ 2021-2022 docket were heard and decided every five or ten years. As a result, one thing is certain: the justices will not labor in obscurity over the next 12 months.

Use of “Shadow Docket” is undermining public trust in the Supreme Court

Attorney David BetrasThe inner workings of the U.S. Supreme Court have been veiled in secrecy since Chief Justice John Jay gaveled the first meeting of the tribunal to order 1789. Aside from hearing oral arguments and issuing decisions, the nine justices function behind tightly closed doors. The conferences in which they debate cases are conducted in private and no notes or minutes are kept, memos and communications by and between the justices are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, each justice has the sole power to release or conceal their papers, and law clerks sign iron-clad confidentiality agreements. No other branch of government is so immune to public scrutiny.

In 1955 Justice Felix Frankfurter offered this explanation for why the Court’s work must be concealed from view:

“The secrecy that envelops the Court’s work is not due to love of secrecy or want of responsible regard for the claims of a democratic society to know how it is governed. That the Supreme Court should not be amenable to the forces of publicity to which the Executive and the Congress are subjected is essential to the effective functioning of the Court.”

The veil that shrouds the Court has occasionally been pierced. Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong’s “The Brethern: Inside the Supreme Court” published in 1979 provided the first in-depth, behind-the-scenes look at the Court thanks to Justice Potter Stewart who was the primary source for the book. In 2004, Vanity Fair reporter David Margolis persuaded several clerks to reveal the political machinations that led to the Court’s controversial decision in Bush v Gore and last year CNN’s Joan Biskupic used confidential sources inside the court to produce a number of pieces about the term’s most-watched cases.

Entrance to US Supreme CourtDespite these notable breaches, respect for the Court’s need to operate clandestinely has remained largely intact because even though the sometimes-messy process of judicial sausage-making has been concealed behind what is commonly referred to as the “Purple Curtain,” the end product has always been prominently displayed in the form of majority and dissenting opinions that clearly reveal the justices’ reasoning and positions. Those opinions—millions of pages of them—are the foundation of the American legal system. They are also the reason why the Court has always been held in high esteem by the public.

Unfortunately, in recent years the Court has repeatedly abandoned the slow, deliberative process that produced well-argued landmark decisions and precedents in favor of what University of Chicago Law School professor William Baude refers to as the “Shadow Docket”—unsigned opinions issued hastily without detailed explanations, often before the cases in question have worked their way through the federal district and appellate courts. The 6-3 ruling that allowed Texas’ draconian anti-choice law to take effect is the most recent and troubling example of the Court’s increasing embrace of this tactic.

I am not raising the issue because I disagree with the majority in the Texas case and others that have been decided via the Shadow Docket, but because the justice’s refusal to share their rationale for their decisions threatens to undermine both the nation’s jurisprudence and public support for the Court which, according to Gallup, has fallen below 50% for only the third time in the past 20 years.

As an attorney, a legal scholar, and a citizen who believes our judicial system is both the heart and soul of our democracy, I fear what may happen if Americans lose faith in the Court. For the good of our nation, I pray that the justices abandon the Shadow Docket and once again share their wisdom, knowledge, and reasoning with us.

You have the right to remain silent…Use it because what you don’t say can’t be used against you in a court of law.

Attorney David BetrasIf you have viewed Law and Order, Law and Order SVU, Law and Order Organized Crime, Law and Order LA, Law and Order Def Comedy Jam or one of the dozen or so other iterations of the franchise, you have undoubtedly heard a cop recite the following to a suspect as they slap on the cuffs:

You have the right to remain silent.

Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law

You have the right to talk to a lawyer and have him or her present while you are being questioned.

If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to represent you before any questioning if you wish.

You can decide at any time to exercise these rights and not answer any questions or make any statements.

Do you understand each of these rights I have explained to you? Having these rights in mind, do you wish to talk to us now?

Just a hint: the answer to the last question is always “no.” I will expand on this point shortly.

After watching Lenny Briscoe “Mirandize” a couple thousand criminals, people think they understand what the warning means. Believe me, they do not because this area of the law, like most, is extremely complicated. And that explains why 90% of criminal cases are solved when people who think they know their rights tell on themselves.

Man in handcuffsFor starters, according to the Supreme Court’s 1966 ruling in Miranda v. Arizona, law enforcement officers do not have to issue a Miranda warning unless they are conducting a custodial interrogation. In plain English, that means suspects do not have to be advised of their right to keep their yap shut unless and until they have been deprived of their freedom of action in a significant way.

In light of this fact, police officers often delay placing a suspect in custody and tell them they are free to go. They then begin asking questions that can lead to an arrest. For example, a police officer stops a driver who is swerving and asks, “Have you had anything to drink tonight?” More often than I care to remember, the driver, who I am almost invariably standing next to in front of a judge, will answer, “Well, I’ve had a couple of beers,” as if the officer will be satisfied by the qualifier “couple of beers” and happily send the driver on his or her way with a friendly wave.

Uhm, not so much. At that point, the officer, who was not required to issue a Miranda warning when he posed what amounts to the $10,000 dollar or so question, will ask the driver to exit the car, submit to a field sobriety test, and then a breathalyzer exam. At the end of the process, the driver will be arrested and Mirandized—which does not mean much at that point.

So, here are the takeaways from this week’s column:

First,  if you are stopped by law enforcement and questioned you are under no obligation to do anything other than provide your name and ID.

Second, remember, the police will delay placing you in custody so they can use what you say to establish probable cause for arrest.

Third, your pre-arrest statements are admissible in court.

Fourth: Shut up. What you do not say cannot be used against you.

Society wins not only when the guilty are convicted, but when criminal trials are fair

Attorney David BetrasIn his most recent MahoningMatters column, BKH managing partner David Betras, one of the area’s leading criminal defense attorneys, discusses prosecutorial misconduct and the threat overzealous prosecutors pose to every American’s freedom…

Prosecutors in the United States wield awesome power and have access to immense resources that dwarf what is available to criminal defendants and defense counsel. The lawyers who represent the people of the United States or the people of Ohio have near-total discretion to decide who is charged and with what—the old saying that a prosecutor can convince a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich is basically true, they are funded by taxpayer dollars, work hand-in-hand with the law enforcement officers who investigate crimes and have unlimited access to state-of-the-art forensic science.

To balance the legal playing field and protect society, the rules of criminal procedure, the law, and codes of conduct administered by the courts and bar associations have established strict guidelines and boundaries designed to prevent prosecutors from abusing their authority. Chief among them is the admonition that a prosecutor’s job is to secure justice, not convictions.  This principle is embodied in Ohio’s Code of Professional Conduct which states:

“A prosecutor has the responsibility of a minister of justice and not simply that of an advocate.”

It is also included in the American Bar Association’s (ABA) Criminal Justice Standards (CJS):

“The primary duty of the prosecutor is to seek justice within the bounds of the law, not merely to convict… The prosecutor should seek to protect the innocent and convict the guilty, consider the interests of victims and witnesses, and respect the constitutional and legal rights of all persons, including suspects and defendants.”

Man in handcuffsAlong with defining prosecutors’ role, the rules, laws, and Supreme Court decisions also set forth their responsibilities, which, according to the ABA’s CJS include the duty to “…make timely disclosure to the defense of all evidence or information known to the prosecutor that tends to negate the guilt of the accused or mitigates the offense…”

This standard encapsulates the Supreme Court’s 1963 decision in Brady v Maryland, In that case, a 7-2 majority held that “…the suppression by the prosecution of evidence favorable to an accused upon request violates due process where the evidence is material either to guilt or to punishment… Society wins not only when the guilty are convicted, but when criminal trials are fair.” The Court has revisited Brady numerous times over the years, including in 1985 when the justices ruled in United States v. Bagley  that a prosecutor’s duty to disclose material favorable evidence exists regardless of whether the defendant makes a specific request.

Despite the guardrails that have been erected, some prosecutors misuse their power and abuse their discretion. They place more value in securing convictions than preserving justice. They commit what are known as “Brady Violations” by refusing to turn over or concealing exculpatory evidence to the defense and violate defendants’ due process rights in other disturbing ways.

This matters for two reasons. First, because when prosecutors violate the rules, innocent people go to jail for decades or are executed. Some of the wrongful conviction cases have penetrated the national consciousness: the Central Park 5, Walter McMillan, the Brown brothers, and Anthony Ray Hinton. Thousands of others, however, suffer in silence outside the spotlight, hoping that justice will be done.

Second, each case of prosecutorial misconduct, each Brady violation, each wrongful conviction weakens the criminal justice system and puts every American’s freedom at risk.