It’s a brilliant concept, if you think about it: an adversarial system in which one side – the one trying to steal the liberty of the other – has to show all its cards up front. “Here”, they have to say “this is what we have against you and, oh, by the way, in the interests of justice, here’s what we have that might show that you didn’t do it.”
It’s the ultimate salvo in an open and fair system; where the goal is rigorous examination of the allegations, no tricks and traps by the government and an outcome that can then be reliably relied upon.
Justice. Such a grand notion; an admirable ideal. It is justice that prompted Brady v. Maryland – an unworkable, but yet noble attempt at drawing lines and taking stances:
The principle of Mooney v. Holohan is not punishment of society for misdeeds of a prosecutor but avoidance of an unfair trial to the accused. Society wins not only when the guilty are convicted but when criminal trials are fair; our system of the administration of justice suffers when any accused is treated unfairly. An inscription on the walls of the Department of Justice states the proposition candidly for the federal domain: “The United States wins its point whenever justice is done its citizens in the courts.” A prosecution that withholds evidence on demand of an accused which, if made available, would tend to exculpate him or reduce the penalty helps shape a trial that bears heavily on the defendant. That casts the prosecutor in the role of an architect of a proceeding that does not comport with standards of justice, even though, as in the present case, his action is not “the result of guile,” to use the words of the Court of Appeals. 226 Md., at 427, 174 A. 2d, at 169.
Perhaps it was a bit optimistic, but they can hardly be blamed for wanting the system to be above board; honest.
But it all got lost somewhere down the road. Why? Who knows. Politics, legislators baying for blood, a public with passions aroused – “tough on crime”, an overburdened system and overworked lawyers with a taste for resolution and no stomach for a fight? But it happened. And the calling was no longer “justice”, it was “convictions”.
Justice is never personal; winning always is. And when the nature of the game that one side is playing changes so dramatically that it becomes personal, the stakes are raised. Raised stakes lead to seeking the advantage and then Brady – and its very ideals – get turned on its head. Now the fox is the gatekeeper, not just the guardian: how do you know if something is exculpatory if they don’t turn it over? And the arbiter of what is “exculpatory” is that very prosecutor whose job it is to administer justice. Statements that cast doubt on the complainant’s version? Not believed by the prosecutor, so not exculpatory. You can imagine the machinations.
And when the goal becomes winning and convictions rather than justice, you get stories like this.
[Prosecutor Keller] Blackburn explained that House Bill 86 not only made a distinction between cocaine and crack cocaine and the weights of the drugs, but it also significantly changed the prison sentences associated with lower level felony crimes. Prior to the changes, fifth-degree and fourth-degree felonies carried the real possibility of prison time. Now, probation or jail time is more likely for first-time offenders. Third-degree felony crimes carried a maximum of five years in prison but now only three can be ordered.
“When you change the numbers, then negotiations get more difficult. If someone is only risking six additional months by not taking a deal, they’ll go to trial. It harms negotiations and pass costs to local communities,” Blackburn said. According to Blackburn, there are around 600 cases that come across his desk in a year. He said it’s not possible for the prosecution and defense to try that many cases, nor is it possible for the courts to handle such a load and taxpayers cannot afford that many cases. He said there is also additional stress placed on the probation department.
Did you get all that? Prosecutor Keller Blackburn is miffed that the legislature reduced penalties for low-level crimes, not because it offends justice, but because it makes his job harder. Prosecutor Keller Blackburn is more concerned with warehousing his fellow citizens, guilt or innocence be damned, because this makes it more difficult for him to put the squeeze on defendants.
Tough penalties were the worst thing this country did in the name of justice. It did exactly the opposite: it forced the hands of unwilling prosecutors and provided great ammunition for the sadistic ones. The greater the exposure in jail, the greater the chance of putting someone away for a disproportionate amount of time.
People ask why I do what I do. This is one reason. Not because I condone crime; not because I like it. But “justice” is hard to come by in the American system. Because of prosecutors like Keller Blackburn. Because there is no oversight of prosecutors. They can get away with almost anything because law and order and criminals and other buzzwords. And if ever found to have violated the Constitution, there is no punishment. Just a stern wag of the finger and be set free to do the same again and again, leaving how many untold victims in their wake while they pursue their quest of “convictions”.
Brady was a valiant effort. Too bad justice doesn’t mean what it used to.
[I swear to God if one of you says “hey, not all prosecutors are like that”, I will tie a peacock to your butt and sprinkle birdseed on your head. Of course they aren’t.]