According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there are just over three-quarter million sworn law enforcement officers in the United States. Most of them do a good job. They honor their vows to serve and protect their communities. Others, however, do not.
An investigative report by USA Today found that dishonest police have helped put thousands of people behind bars. Since 1988, at least 987 of these people have been exonerated of their crimes after the courts learned of police misconduct or perjury. But untold hundreds or thousands remain wrongfully imprisoned.
The Brady list and the right to discovery
In criminal cases, there is a discovery process. During this time, the lawyers for the prosecution and defense are supposed to exchange certain information about the case. Defense attorneys can ask about the prosecution’s evidence and witnesses, and the prosecution must hand over any exculpatory evidence. This includes evidence that might prove the defendant isn’t guilty. It also includes evidence about the witnesses that might cause jurors to question their testimony. Even if those witnesses are police officers.
Instead, USA Today found that the requirement to create a Brady list that tracks dishonest police officers was being ignored—or only partially upheld—in hundreds of offices across the nation:
- Over 300 prosecutors’ offices had not taken steps to track dishonest cops and share their records with the defense.
- Many of the places that keep these records do not make them public. This makes it hard to know if they are following the law or not.
- Even the offices that maintain these records do not always have complete information, and the types of misconduct they track often varies from place to place.
The problem, as USA Today noted, is that trials often put a defendant’s word up against a cop’s. Though the defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty, jurors are human and may be biased against a defendant’s testimony. They may respect the officer’s badge and favor the officer’s word. Unless the prosecution is doing its job, the jurors won’t know about the cop’s past misconduct. They won’t see how the officer was disciplined for lying in previous cases, and they won’t ask themselves if the officer is lying to them—at least not as clearly as they would if they had that history.
What does this mean for people accused of crimes?
People accused of crimes deserve the full protections of the law. They deserve a fair discovery process and a lawyer who will press for all pertinent information. They may also want to scroll through the USA Today article to see if their county is among those that don’t maintain a Brady list.