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Does it Matter if Exculpatory Evidence is Inadmissible?

By Robyn Hagan Cain on January 18, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The rules regarding exculpatory evidence are pretty clear. In Brady v. Maryland, the Supreme Court 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." In United States v. Bagley, the Court clarified, "Impeachment evidence, ... as well as exculpatory evidence, falls within the Brady rule." The prosecution has an affirmative "duty to disclose such evidence" even if the defense doesn't request it.

And when a defendant actually requests evidence? You guessed it. The prosecution has to comply.

Roderick Johnson was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison without any physical evidence or eyewitness testimony tying him to the crime. The state's star witness was George Robles, Johnson's "friend." Robles testified that Johnson confessed to him. Given the importance of that testimony, Johnson's counsel wanted to undermine Robles' credibility at trial.

Prior to trial, Johnson's counsel brought a motion to compel discovery, seeking information about Robles' criminal activities: charged and uncharged, past and present. The district attorney denied the existence of any such evidence. The DA assured the court that there had been "no promises or inducement to any of the witnesses," "no plea agreements," "no pending cases," and "no promise for the testimony."

But that wasn't true.

During discovery in Johnson's federal habeas case, previously-undisclosed evidence revealed that, at the time Robles testified, he was under investigation for his role in a shooting, an assault, and multiple shots-fired incidents. The undisclosed evidence also showed that Robles, who was never arrested or charged for any crimes despite his having had repeated dealings with the police in investigations involving guns and drugs, did in fact supply the police with information concerning an unrelated crime when his own involvement in an assault came under investigation.

The jury never heard any of this impeachment evidence because the DA patently misrepresented to the state court that it had no information or police reports naming Robles as a suspect.

The district court, however, held that didn't establish prejudice because the evidence pertaining to Robles' uncharged criminal conduct would have been inadmissible because it was "extremely speculative, tangential to the issues ... and was also likely to confuse the jury."

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed. This week, the appellate court reversed the district court's judgment, concluding that Johnson's case deserved a "more thorough and exacting evaluation."

The Third Circuit's decision doesn't mean that Johnson will get a new trial. For now, it just means that the district court take a hard look at the "potential impact of the undisclosed impeachment evidence."

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