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Law: Can a Prosecutor Withhold Exculpating Evidence?

Updated on May 8, 2015

Legal Issues

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The Case of Schultz

Is it right for a prosecutor to withhold exculpating evidence in his possession just because he believes the accused person is guilty? A good illustration of what this involves is the case of District Attorney Schultz.

District Attorney Schultz brought a case against three football players, charging them with raping a stripper at a party they attended. The three had a history of violence against women having been accused the previous year, of raping two women, in a case that was later dismissed on a technicality. The technicality was that the video evidence of the forced sex had been collected by the police through an illegal search. Schultz was convinced that the three were guilty and was under immense pressure from the media which had great interest in the case. With an election coming up for his position, Schultz believed that having the three convicted would help his re-election campaign.

However, the DNA test he had conducted on the victims did not match the alleged rapists. Moreover, the stripper admitted to having consensual sex with two other people at the party, which contradicted her rape testimony. To strengthen his case, Schultz decided to withhold the DNA evidence unless asked and advised the stripper not to mention her other sexual encounters. The main issue is; was he morally and ethically right not to disclose all the evidence in his custody to the court?

Relevant Legal Concepts and Case

Rule 38 of the American Bar Association [ABA] Model Rules of Professional Conduct requires prosecutors to make timely disclosure to the defense of all evidence that negates the guilt of the accused or mitigates their circumstances. These rules have been adopted variously by different states in the United States but are not in themselves legal provisions (Shubert, 2009, 245). Nevertheless, state and federal laws require prosecutors to disclose all exculpating evidence that may help the defense, since such evidence may ensure they get the correct sentence even if they are still found guilty (Shubert, 2009, 245). In this case the intention of Schultz is the direct opposite and thus subverts justice. Political ambition is not justification at all for withholding evidence especially that of an exculpating nature. Instead it is a form of prosecutorial corruption based on the selfish ambition of the individual. It thus has no moral, legal or ethical justification.

Relevant Case Law

Brady v Maryland

The landmark 1963 case of Brady v Maryland is quite relevant to Schultz issue. In that case Brady was accused of committing murder together with a companion called Boblit. Though Brady readily admitted being involved in the murder, he insisted that Boblit had done the actual killing (Gershman, 2006, 685). It turned out that the prosecution had withheld a written statement by Boblit in which he stated that he done the actual killing by himself. Though the Maryland court of appeal upheld Brady’s conviction, it ordered a retrial requiring a lighter punishment for Brady (Gershman, 2006, 685). It is clear from this case that had the exculpating evidence not been found, then Brandy may have been punished for first degree murder which draws a stiff penalty (Gershman, 2006, 685). This would have been a clear miscarriage of justice and the Appeal court stated as much.

Conclusion

There is no justification for Schultz to withhold the evidence in the case. He must reveal all exculpating evidence. Pressure from the press and his ambition of being reelected are not legally, morally or ethically admissible (Shubert, 2009, 245). Any action to the contrary would amount to misconduct on his part. The fact that District Attorneys are elected in the United States may often lead to individuals bending the rules to try to secure election. However, there is no legal basis for such conduct and thus he would be held responsible for misconduct, if he were to commit such and act.

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