Getting Brady Right: Why Extending Brady V. Maryland's Trial Right to Plea Negotiations Better Protects a Defendant's Constitutional Rights in the Modern Legal Era

By Grossman, James M. | Brigham Young University Law Review, September 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

Getting Brady Right: Why Extending Brady V. Maryland's Trial Right to Plea Negotiations Better Protects a Defendant's Constitutional Rights in the Modern Legal Era


Grossman, James M., Brigham Young University Law Review


"The stakes are high . . . . [T]he injury to a defendant which can be caused by an unconstitutional suppression of exculpatory evidence is substantial, particularly if the evidence is never uncovered."1

I. Introduction

The Sixth Amendment states that "[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial."2 Additionally, the accused is guaranteed (1) the "[assistance of [c]ounsel," (2) the ability "to be confronted with the witnesses against him [or her]," and (3) the right "to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation."3 Finally, and arguably most importantly, the Sixth Amendment states that the accused may only be publically convicted of a crime "by an impartial jury" of his or her peers4 unanimously, and under the conclusory determination of guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt."5 Taken together, these protections and procedures constitute the "gold standard of American justice."6

Unfortunately, the American justice gold standard of yesterday is no longer the standard of today. Instead of a justice system of trials and juries guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment, today's American justice system is a "system of pleas."7 In 1996, roughly ninety-two percent of criminal convictions in federal cases came about by either nolo contendere or guilty plea.8 In 2010, ninety-seven percent of federal convictions, and ninety-four percent of state convictions were obtained through guilty pleas.9 Needless to say, plea bargaining has become "central to the administration of the criminal justice system."10

This "pleading phenomenon" creates a significant problem: many of the protections guaranteed under the Constitution for defendants at trial are not extended to plea bargaining-the phase where the vast majority of criminal cases are being disposed. one manifestation of this problem is the trial-based right originating from Brady v. Maryland.11 Under Brady, the Supreme Court of the United States determined that any failure by the prosecution to disclose either (1) exculpatory or (2) impeachment evidence that is material to either guilt or punishment is a violation of due process under the Fourteenth Amendment.12 Although Brady is a clear and powerful asset for defendants, its reach and ramifications touch only criminal trials-not plea bargaining.13 In today's criminal justice system, where pleas and plea bargaining are the norm, Brady's promise to defendants rings hollow.

In 2002, the Supreme Court partially addressed this dilemma. The Court held in United States v. Ruiz that a guilty plea could not be vacated on account of a prosecutor's failure to turn over impeachment evidence during plea negotiations.14 In other words, the Court said that Brady's impeachment-evidence promise for the defense could not be extended to plea bargaining or plea deals.

However, the Ruiz court, was silent on whether Brady's exculpatory evidence promise extended to plea deals.15 Despite the Court's conservative conclusion in Ruiz, a Circuit split exists on whether a Brady violation occurs when the prosecution fails to divulge exculpatory evidence during plea negotiations.16 And "the Supreme Court has not addressed the question of whether the Brady right to exculpatory information, in contrast to impeachment information, might be extended to the guilty plea context."17

The purpose of this Comment is to answer the question the Supreme Court has left unanswered regarding the inclusion of exculpatory evidence during plea negotiations. To do so, Part II introduces Brady v. Maryland and its progeny, illustrating how the rule has changed over time and how, by declining to extend Brady's holding to plea negotiations, federal courts fail to meet the purposes that motivated Brady in the first place: (1) protecting defendants, (2) safeguarding the criminally innocent, and (3) conforming to the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. Part III details how the Supreme Court sought to remedy the three problems noted above by answering the question of whether "impeachment evidence should be disclosed during plea negotiations" in United States v. …

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