Criminal trials can seem like a ‘no holds barred’ cage match in which prosecutors are free to do whatever they can in order to secure a conviction. However, while each side is expected to zealously advocate for the party they represent, that does not mean that anything goes. Prosecutors, just like criminal defense attorneys, must follow the law and other court rules. This is a fact however, that it seems prosecutors sometimes forget.

Prosecutors are required to disclose exculpatory evidence, that is, evidence that tends to demonstrate that the criminal suspect is not guilty of the criminal charges they are facing. Of course, a prosecutor may prefer to keep it to himself if he should happen to find out there is some piece of evidence that points to another suspect, or that one of the witnesses has changed their story. But they are required to share this information, if they do not, a conviction could potentially be overturned. That is exactly what the U.S. Supreme Court did today.

In the case of Smith v. Cain, the suspect was convicted of first degree murder based on testimony from a single witness. There was no physical evidence or any other witness that implicated the suspect in this crime. While the single witness’s testimony at trial seemed to clearly implicate the suspect that was not the entire story.

After the initial conviction the suspect attempted to reverse his conviction. As part of that effort, he discovered the notes from the criminal investigators in which the witness had said that he could not described the perpetrators, that he did not see their faces, and would not know them if he saw them. The prosecution did not supply any of this information to the suspect’s defense team.

The U.S. Supreme Court rules that because there was a reasonable probability that if the evidence had been properly disclosed the court would have reached a different result.

Source: ABA Journal, “Supreme Court Tosses Murder Conviction for Brady Violation by New Orleans DA,” Debra Cassens Weiss, Jan. 10, 2012