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The high stakes and ultimately failed legal gambit by the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s office to convict Officer Caesar Goodson in the death of 25-year old Freddie Gray brought to light a murkier side of what went on behind the scenes.
According to presiding Judge Barry Williams, prosecutors in the Goodson trial withheld critical information from the defense that could have helped their case. Sharing such "exculpatory" information is a core legal obligation in prosecutions and goes to fundamental fairness rights.
"I’m not saying you did anything nefarious. I’m saying you don’t understand what ‘exculpatory’ means," Williams told prosecutors upon discovering the violations.
Goodson was charged and acquitted of second degree "depraved heart" murder, three different counts of manslaughter, assault, reckless endangerment and misconduct in office on Thursday.
Such prosecutor violations are also not unique to the Freddie Gray trials. It happens a lot.
The Innocence Project, a non-profit legal organization that works against wrongful convictions, researched prosecutorial misconduct in five states over the past five years and found that the practice was widespread.
"There were several prosecutors’ offices that did not hand over evidence that they should have," said Paul Cates, communications director for the Innocence Project. “We know the system that is supposed to prevent this is inadequate due to very little transparency and very little accountability.”
In preparing for the Goodson trial, which received a significant degree of national attention, Baltimore prosecutors had a meeting with Donta Allen, the other arrestee in the back of the wagon with Freddie Gray.
Although, they had Allen’s police statement from the day Gray sustained his injuries, prosecutors decided to speak to him once more in the presence of his attorney.
They made no mention of this to Goodson’s defense attorneys.
The fact that the meeting took place found its way to the defense over a year later by way of Allen’s attorney, Jack Rubin. Defense attorneys said Rubin came to them as a “conscientious lawyer who felt a duty bound to alert the court and the defense to the state's misconduct.”
A livid Judge Williams skewered prosecutors on this failure before opening statements kicked off. “Isn't that your duty to turn things over, my concern is what else is out there that you didn't turn over?” he asked prosecutor Michael Schatzow.
This duty to turn evidence over is covered under the Brady rule, which requires prosecutors to disclose evidence in their possession that is favorable to the defense.
“It comes down to a question of either poor training or bad judgment calls,” says Renee Hutchins, a professor at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law. “Even if the prosecutors are not acting maliciously, the fact is they had material evidence and didn't turn it over, is not following rules that are clear and longstanding,” she said.
But even after the first violation came to light, another one emerged soon after.
Again, Judge Williams found prosecutors wrongfully withheld notes written by Detective Dawnyell Taylor, the lead investigator in Gray’s death.
Detective Taylor’s notes disclosed an alternate theory on the cause of death by medical examiner Dr. Carol Allen. The notes included an written observation that Dr. Allen called Gray’s death “a freakish accident” early on in the investigation. A crucial piece of evidence in the court’s eyes, one that could have greatly changed the landscape for defense attorneys.
Judge Williams took the state to task by sanctioning this indiscretion by allowing Detective Taylor to testify. Part of her testimony, among others that proved embarrassing for the state, was that she handed over the notes to prosecutor Janice Bledsoe who “threw a tantrum and pushed the notes across the table” refusing to take them.
“There really should be no debate among prosecutors on whether something is exculpatory. It’s not their call,” said former Baltimore prosecutor Warren Alperstein. “Its not the prosecutors role to determine if evidence may or may not be used by defendants, they have to hand it over,” he said. If information is helpful to a defendant, the state has a legal and ethical obligation to disclose it, said Alperstein.
A conviction for Goodson held the highest stake for the state’s attorneys office, since he was the only officer to be charged for second degree murder.
But the violations were not unique to the Goodson trial. In fact, Judge Williams called out prosecutors for the same behavior in Officer William Porter’s trial.
During that trial, prosecutors failed to disclose that Gray had allegedly told a police officer the he suffered from back problems one month before he died. Judge Williams recognized the failure and allowed Porter’s attorneys to use that information in the course of the trial.
Many legal experts argue that these types of violations are rarely discovered and the only reason they came about in this case is because of its high profile nature and many police sympathizers watching out for these defendants. But even with the added scrutiny, prosecutors were brazen enough to make controversial calls on disclosing evidence at the risk of being discovered.
“This case tells us a lot about the criminal justice system,” said David Jaros, professor at the University of Baltimore School of law. “If exculpatory evidence is not turned over in this case, which is heavily litigated, with vast amounts of money and resources. What does that say about what happens in cases where no one is watching?”