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Prosecutors can withhold evidence to manipulate criminal law

In Connecticut and other states, the right to a fair trial is guaranteed to all citizens. That is why a large number of federal laws are in place to protect the rights of alleged victims and defendants alike. And while the great majority of criminal defense attorneys and prosecutors respect and uphold such standards, some defendants are forced to contend with unscrupulous prosecution techniques and policies intended, it seems, to achieve convictions no matter what.

Right now, federal law does allow for defendants to challenge their conviction in the event that it is apparent that the prosecution withheld evidence from them during the course of the trial. However, a conviction may only be successfully overturned if there is a high probability that the suppressed evidence was material, meaning that it would have likely altered the outcome of the trial if it had been presented to the defense. 

In the past, legislation regarding the suppression of information by the prosecution did not attempt to prioritize material over any exculpatory evidence. After all, every piece of evidence is relevant in a criminal defense case and prosecutors are legally obligated to provide defendants with the results of their investigations.

While it is concerning that defendants are largely expected to prove the significance of omitted evidence when many do not have the opportunity or resources to do so, it is doubly troubling that no safeguards are in place to prevent or punish the practice of withholding such information. With little to no fear of facing reprimand for suppressing evidence, some prosecutors proceed to build cases against defendants in ways that leave them ill-equipped to defend themselves. Until offending prosecutors are held accountable for such mistakes, the notion of a fair trial may be viewed as nothing more than an empty promise for many defendants.  

Source: The Atlantic, “Prosecutors Shouldn’t Be Hiding Evidence From Defendants,” Andrew Cohen, May 13, 2013