The XX Factor

Forget about Casey Anthony: It Matters When Prosecutors Don’t Turn Over Exculpatory Evidence

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To help prove that she killed her 2-year-old daughter, Casey Anthony’s prosecutors told the jury in her case that she Googled “chloroform” 84 times. As it turns out, that’s wrong. Anthony used the search term only once; the count of 84 came from a glitch in the software that tallied her searches. The software’s designer discovered this error in June, yet though he says he immediately alerted police and offered a corrected report, the prosecutors didn’t correct themselves before they concluded. In other words, when jurors went to deliberate Anthony’s fate, they had information that falsely implicated her —and the prosecution team knew it.

If Anthony had been convicted, this news would surely fuel her bid to have the verdict set aside as a mistrial. Since she was acquitted, we may be tempted to shrug off the prosecution’s misconduct.  Isn’t it damning that Anthony searched for “chloroform” even once? Why does the prosecution’s non-disclosure really matter?

It matters. A lot. It suggests that the Florida State Attorney’s office which tried Anthony may have violated a Constitutional principle designed to protect everyone who ever faces criminal charges. In a case called Brady v. Maryland, the Supreme Court ruled that it’s unconstitutional for prosecutors to withhold any evidence that might be favorable to the person they’re prosecuting. This is because, as Brady famously noted, “the United States wins its point whenever justice is done its citizens in the court.” In other words, the duty of a government prosecutor isn’t to rack up convictions: It’s to help ensure that criminal courts are getting it right. Forensic evidence is often central to criminal cases, so it’s especially important that the evidence is accurate. It’s scary for all of us when prosecutors are more concerned with making the defendant look bad than getting to the truth of the matter. This is especially true because, once you’ve been found guilty of a crime, it’s incredibly difficult—and expensive– to get your conviction overturned.

Earlier this year, we saw an example of how sad it can be when Brady violations occur. This term, the Supreme Court heard about John Thompson, a man who spent 18 years on Louisiana’s death row for a murder that he didn’t commit. The reason? A Brady violation. Though the prosecutors knew that a blood sample taken from the crime scene didn’t match Thompson’s blood type (among other things), they didn’t turn over that information to his lawyers. Twenty years later, investigators for the defense finally uncovered that evidence. Thompson sued the former district attorney who had failed to train his staff about their obligations to turn it over. A jury awarded Thompson $14 million in damages—$1 million for each year he spent in isolation on death row. Louisiana courts upheld that award. But in March, the Supreme Court split 5 to 4 along ideological lines to overturn it. The conservative majority found that there wasn’t a sufficient “pattern” of Brady violations to constitute a civil rights violation. Thompson wrote movingly about his loss before the high court in the New York Times.

When notorious criminal defendants like Casey Anthony are acquitted, there is often a public outcry and media circus. But when prosecutors withhold exculpatory evidence, that kind of systemic practice should concern you more than a jury’s decision to acquit.