Supreme Court Should Take Action To Rehabilitate Brady Rule in Georgiou v. United States

Justice requires that the Supreme Court shore up the foundations of one of its landmark due process cases, Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963).  Otherwise, Brady, one of the seminal due process cases of the 20th Century, will be “more honor’d in the breach than the observance.”

In Brady, the Court ruled that prosecutors could not hide material exculpatory evidence from defendants. It is founded on the simple concept that a fair trial requires that a jury be presented with unbiased evidence, and the Government cannot, consistent with due process, prevent important exculpatory evidence from reaching the jury.

Over the years, prosecutors have largely resisted the concept that they share evidence in their possession that could assist the defense.  This reflects a fundamentally flawed approach to the criminal justice process – too many prosecutors view winning a prosecution as the ultimate goal, when in fact achieving justice – win or lose – is the sine qua non of the criminal justice system of which they are part and parcel.

It is well-known that obtaining exculpatory evidence from prosecutors can be like pulling their teeth, and it has been documented that the failure to follow the simple Brady mandate is a common occurrence.  The courts, which are entrusted to assure the Brady rule is followed, have been unduly neglectful of this key oversight role, showing an unseemly willingness to accept Brady violations under a range of rationalizations.

One of the key rationalizations for permitting Brady violations has been the so-called “due diligence” rule adopted by some courts, under which even the intentional failure of the prosecution to share important exculpatory evidence is ignored if the court develops a hindsight theory of how defense counsel could have uncovered similar information through its own investigations.  The “due diligence” concept finds no support in Brady or other Supreme Court decisions, and, as is readily apparent, flies in the face of the very concept of Brady, which is about the State’s duty to assure a fair trial, not the relative diligence or acumen of the defense lawyers.

This issue has now been placed squarely before the Court in a petition for certiorari in Georgiou v. United States, No. 14-1535.  Some time ago we wrote about some ill-conceived decisions by the Third Circuit in United States v. Georgiou, 777 F.3d 125 (3d Cir. 2014).  The 3rd Circuit first misapplied the Supreme Court decision in Morrison v. National Australia Bank Ltd., 561 U.S. 247 (2010), by ruling that transactions that touched the United States in only the most ephemeral way were subject to extraterritorial jurisdiction.  See Third Circuit Adopts “Craven Watchdog” Standard for Extraterriorial Reach of Securities Laws in U.S. v. Georgiou.  Then, the court sunk a spear into the heart of Brady by ruling that the prosecutors’ intentional withholding from the defense of key exculpatory evidence was not a Brady violation because the defense lawyers could have figured out how to gain access to that information themselves.  See U.S. v. Georgiou: 3rd Circuit Panel Decision Makes a “Mockery” of Brady Disclosures and Jencks Act Compliance.  The Third Circuit opinion is available here: US v Georgiou.

It is well-documented that prosecutorial violations of the Brady rule – which is critically important to both actual and apparent fairness in criminal prosecutions – are common.  This is one of the shameful aspects of our current criminal justice system that most courts blithely ignore.  It is bad enough that non-compliance with Brady is rife; it is even worse that our courts not only conjure up reasons to allow prosecutors to get away with this, but also, like the Third Circuit in Georgiou, create new rules to provide non-compliant prosecutors with a safe harbor to avoid the appropriate consequences – reversal and retrial – for deciding not to comply with the core fairness principles Brady endorsed and imposed.

The cert. petition in Georgiou and three supporting amicus briefs show (i) the Brady rule is often circumvented by prosecutors, mostly with no consequences; (ii) that is what happened in the Georgiou prosecution; and (iii) the post-hoc absolution of prosecutorial misconduct by focusing on hypothetical defense failures to cure that violation is contrary to Supreme Court precedent, antithetical to Brady, and fosters a prosecutorial mindset that the risk of such due process violations is worth taking in order “win” a conviction.

The Georgiou cert. petition is available here: Cert. Petition in Georgiou v. US.  The three amicus briefs in support of that petition are available here: Georgiou v. US Amicus Brief of Former Prosecutors; Georgiou v. US Center on Administration of Criminal Law Amicus Brief; and Georgiou v. US Amicus Brief of California Attorneys for Criminal Justice.

The Georgiou cert. petition presents these key facts relating to the Brady issue:

The charges arose out of an alleged scheme to artificially inflate the prices of several stocks on the over-the-counter securities market. . . .  According to the indictment, Georgiou and his co-conspirators caused the stocks’ prices to rise by engaging in manipulative trading. . . .

. . . . The Government’s star witness was Kevin Waltzer, an alleged coconspirator.  Waltzer was the only witness who could provide what the Government described as “an insider[’]s view into this stock ring by one of its participants.” . . .  And during the trial, Waltzer testified directly to Georgiou’s mens rea, telling the jury that Georgiou “basically” admitted to him that Georgiou “kn[ew] that the public is going to get fleeced.” . . .

Following trial, Georgiou obtained critical material from Waltzer’s own criminal proceedings. Waltzer himself had been charged with wire fraud and other federal crimes. . . .  [M]ore than a year before the start of Georgiou’s trial . . . a [bail report] regarding whether Waltzer should be released on bail . . . stated that Waltzer had “been diagnosed in the past with Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder and Substance Abuse Disorder.” . . .  And it noted that he had been taking Paxil for the last ten years for his anxiety. . . .  Georgiou obtained a copy of this bail report for the first time after the end of his trial.

Georgiou also obtained, for the first time following his trial, a copy of the transcript of Waltzer’s arraignment and guilty plea hearing.  During that hearing, in the presence of an assistant U.S. attorney, Waltzer acknowledged “see[ing] a psychiatrist, psychologist or mental health provider * * * in connection with depression and anxiety.”

The Government had failed to disclose either the bail report or the plea transcript prior to Georgiou’s trial, even though Georgiou had requested “any and all evidence” that “a government witness or prospective government witness * * * is or was suffering from any mental disability or emotional disturbance.” . . .  Georgiou had also requested any “[i]nformation concerning Mr. Waltzer’s * * * current or past psychiatric treatment or counseling.”

Cert. petition at 4-8.

The petition also describes how the availability of that evidence would have permitted the defendant to learn that this key witness was an admitted drug addict, and that his medication had known side-effects of memory impairment.  Id. at 6-7 & notes 2-3.  The Third Circuit ruled that the prosecutors’ intentional withholding of this evidence about the state of mind of the Government’s star witness was not a Brady violation because with greater diligence, the defense could have obtained those materials themselves.  It also found they were not “material” evidence under Brady.

The Georgiou case struck a nerve among both defense lawyers and prosecutors.  This is reflected in the three amicus briefs filed in support of granting the writ of certiorari and reversing Georgiou. One was filed by the California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, one by the Center on the Administration of Criminal Law, and one by an unusual, large group of former federal prosecutors, Department of Justice, and other Government officials.  Those officials include: a former Attorney General and federal district judge, two former Acting Attorneys General, a former White House Counsel, four former Deputy Attorneys General, five former U.S. Attorneys, and an assortment of other former high-level federal criminal justice officials.

These three amicus briefs agree that the exception to the Brady rule adopted by the Third Circuit is wrong as a matter of law under Supreme Court precedent, and dangerous as a matter of policy because of its harmful effects on due process.  They also agree that the documented trend of prosecutors ignoring Brady will continue and worsen if the Supreme Court fails to step in to make it clear that the rule is not just a heuristic concept with no serious consequences if (actually, when) it is ignored, but is mandated by principles of fundamental fairness, due process, and the administration of justice, and must be enforced vigorously and without exception.

The impressive group of former DOJ leaders, prosecutors, and government officials wrote:

As the Supreme Court recognized in Brady v. Maryland, the failure to disclose favorable evidence “violates due process … irrespective of the good faith or bad faith of the prosecution.” 373 U.S. 83, 87 (1963); see also United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683, 709 (1974) (“The very integrity of the judicial system and public confidence in the system depend on full disclosure of all the facts, within the framework of the rules of evidence.”).  While this affirmative duty is above and beyond the demands of the “pure adversary model,” United States v. Bagley, 473 U.S. 667, 675 n.6 (1985), it is grounded in an understanding of the prosecutor’s “‘special role … in the search for truth in criminal trial,’” Banks v. Dretke, 540 U.S. 668, 696 (2004).  From their years of combined experience, amici appreciate the challenging judgment calls prosecutors face on a daily basis, but they also deeply believe that fundamental fairness and public confidence in our justice system relies on prosecutors taking their disclosure obligations seriously and fulfilling this duty capaciously.

Amici do not believe that Supreme Court precedent recognizes an exception to the Brady rule for lack of diligence by the defense and are concerned that the decisions of several federal circuits, including the Third Circuit, have undermined Brady by shifting focus away from the prosecutor’s affirmative obligation to disclose. We submit this brief to emphasize that the introduction of an antecedent “due diligence” inquiry focused on the defendant is inconsistent not only with Supreme Court precedent but also principles codified in the codes of ethical conduct for prosecutors.

Petitioner George Georgiou’s case presents a straightforward question about the appropriateness of conditioning Brady disclosures on a defendant’s exercise of due diligence.  According to the government, Georgiou and his co-conspirators engaged in a scheme that inflated the prices of four securities through various trading strategies and then fraudulently used those manipulated securities as collateral to obtain large loans. . . .  The prosecution relied on the testimony of Kevin Waltzer, Georgiou’s former business partner and alleged co-conspirator. . . .  Waltzer’s testimony corroborated certain physical evidence collected by the government . . . and undergirded the government’s contention that Georgiou acted “wilfully” and had the “intent to defraud.”. . .

Recognizing the importance of Waltzer’s testimony, Georgiou made a pre-trial request that the government turn over any Brady information that would “reflect upon the credibility, ompetency, bias or motive of government witnesses,” including with respect to any mental health problems or substance abuse issues Waltzer might have had. . . .  The government provided limited information regarding Waltzer’s drug use responsive to this request. . . .

Yet the government had been aware from Waltzer’s own criminal proceedings that he had an extensive history of substance abuse and mental health problems, and possessed two pieces of evidence at issue on appeal that it failed to disclose: A Bail Report provided to the government a year before Georgiou’s trial by pretrial services . . . and the transcript of Waltzer’s arraignment and guilty plea hearing . . . .  Both documents contained specific information about the timeline of Waltzer’s mental health and substance abuse issues, as well as the medication and treatment he was receiving in the period leading up to his testimony.  This information might have informed Georgiou’s defense strategy and advanced his efforts to undermine Waltzer’s credibility. . . .

The Third Circuit affirmed the conviction. The court held that the evidence had not been suppressed because Georgiou failed to exercise “reasonable diligence” in seeking evidence of Waltzer’s mental health history. . . .  In particular, the court reasoned that the Bail Report and the Minutes, as public records, were equally available to Georgiou and the prosecution.  . . .

By adopting this circumscribed view of a prosecutor’s obligations under Brady, the Third Circuit has joined a growing list of courts departing in this way from Supreme Court precedent and the fundamental principles that undergird the Brady doctrine.  Where prosecutors are aware of this sort of information, they should disclose it to the defense, and their obligations to the truth-seeking process and principles of fairness are not discharged on the theory that the defendant could seek it out for himself.  Such an approach contributes to a harmful notion that the criminal justice system is a game, and that victory rather than justice is a prosecutor’s goal.

. . . . The Third Circuit has diminished this constitutional and ethical requirement by introducing a rule that excuses a prosecutor from fulfilling her obligation if the defendant could have but did not find the favorable evidence himself.  Rather than ask whether the prosecution has withheld from the defendant evidence that, “if made available, would tend to exculpate him or reduce the penalty,” Brady, 373 U.S. at 87-88, the Third Circuit asks whether the defendant could have obtained the evidence “from other sources by exercising reasonable diligence,” United States v. Perdomo, 929 F.2d 967, 973 (1991).  Such a rule is tantamount to saying that a “‘prosecutor may hide, defendant must seek,’” which this Court in Banks v. Dretke made clear “is not tenable in a system constitutionally bound to accord defendants due process.”  540 U.S. 668, 696 (2004) . . . .  It is also at odds with standards of prosecutorial conduct.

Brief of Former Prosecutors and Officials at 2-7.

The Center for the Administration of Criminal Law (CACL) provided similar views, and focused on the harmful impact of fashioning rules that allow departures from Brady obligations:

Prosecutors’ duty under Brady to disclose exculpatory evidence to defendants is a core component of prosecutors’ ethical duty to seek justice rather than victory.  Nonetheless, many prosecutors fail to live up to the obligations that Brady imposes on them.  Because of the public perception that prosecutorial misconduct is widespread, public confidence in prosecutors’ integrity and the overall fairness of the criminal justice system is in decline.

The Third Circuit’s recognition of a “due diligence” exception to Brady not only undermines defendants’ constitutional right to due process, but also fosters conditions likely to further erode public confidence in the system.  While a legal doctrine excusing Brady violations might appear to be an attractive option for prosecutors, in fact it harms both prosecutors and defendants.  It muddies an otherwise clear ethical obligation to disclose exculpatory information, which is central to prosecutors’ duty to seek justice.  It burdens prosecutors by requiring speculation about information available to their adversaries through due diligence – a determination that prosecutors are ill-equipped to make for myriad reasons.  By undermining defendants’ confidence in the information they receive from prosecutors, it discourages plea bargaining, which is essential to the efficient functioning of today’s criminal justice system.  By undercutting public confidence in prosecutors generally, it hampers their ability to obtain the cooperation of witnesses and the trust of jurors.  And ultimately, it undermines the public’s interest in ensuring that the guilty are convicted and the innocent exonerated, because those outcomes depend on a robust adversarial system in which both sides have actual knowledge of the material facts.

CACL Brief at 3-4.

The CACL brief also focused on the growing problem of non-compliance with Brady:

Unfortunately, Brady’s promise of full disclosure often has not been realized in practice.  In a recent frank opinion, Chief Judge Alex Kozinski of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit observed that “Brady violations have reached epidemic proportions in recent years, and the federal and state reporters bear testament to this unsettling trend.”  United States v. Olsen, 737 F.3d 625, 631 (9th Cir. 2013) (Kozinski, J., dissenting from denial of reh’g en banc) (collecting cases).  Some commentators are even more critical.

Empirical studies confirm that Chief Judge Kozinski’s statement was no exaggeration.  According to a study by the Veritas Initiative, prosecutors withheld or delayed disclosing favorable evidence in roughly one-third of the cases sampled.  [Citation omitted.]  Yet in 2001, “[a] nationwide study of all reported cases involving discipline for prosecutorial misconduct found only twenty-seven instances in which prosecutors were disciplined for unethical behavior that compromised the fairness of a trial.”  [Citations omitted.]  Recognizing a due diligence exception, and thereby increasing uncertainty about Brady’s scope, threatens to exacerbate these problems by suggesting judicial sanction for prosecutors’ noncompliance.

. . . .

Disclosing exculpatory evidence helps to “justify trust in the prosecutor,” and supplies legitimacy enabling the prosecutor to fulfill his or her mandate. . . .  By excusing failures to disclose Brady material that might be discovered through “reasonable diligence” . . ., the exception both weakens prosecutors’ disclosure obligations and reduces transparency.  In short, it undermines trust in prosecutors by minimizing their duty to disclose exculpatory evidence.

Id. at 6-7, 10.

The CACL brief goes on to discuss at length why presenting prosecutors with the option to game the Brady rule by speculating about what defense “due diligence” might reveal – thus negating their own obligation to reveal exculpatory evidence they know exists – undermines the rule, and places even good faith prosecutors in an untenable position to make decisions based on guesses or suppositions that they are ill-fitted to make.  Id. at 13-18.

The California Attorneys for Criminal Justice likewise argue that removing the uncertainty of the products of “due diligence” from the Brady disclosure equation is necessary to achieve Brady’s key fairness goals:

The “due diligence” exception adopted by the Third Circuit in this case, and by other circuits and state courts around the country, should be rejected because it undermines the animating principle of Brady and imposes on prosecutors and courts the unavoidably speculative analysis of whether a particular piece of evidence would be meaningfully “available” to a diligent defendant.  The exception also invites prosecutorial mischief, as complex rules that rest on speculative inquiries are far more vulnerable to mistakes, or abuse, than clear and simple commands.  The exception also imposes onerous and inefficient limitations on counsel to indigent defendants, who often do not have resources to conduct fulsome investigations.

. . . .

As Brady itself recognized, “[s]ociety 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.”  373 U.S. at 87. . . .  The “due diligence” rule applied by the Third Circuit in this case undermines these goals. . . .  The due diligence exception has no place in the Brady analysis, and in fact operates only to undermine the promise of fair trials.  As applied by the Third Circuit and other courts, the exception affects the outcome of the Brady analysis only when the defendant has established the failure to disclose evidence that has a reasonable probability of affecting the outcome of a case.  That is, it preserves a conviction precisely, and only, when there is substantial doubt that the defendant was “convicted on the basis of all the evidence which exposes the truth.”

. . . .

The Third Circuit’s opinion in this case relied on the assumption that the undisclosed evidence “could have been accessed through his exercise of reasonable diligence.” . . .  Even if that assumption were warranted here, in many cases a prosecutor’s determination whether evidence is reasonably accessible to defendants will require speculation regarding both the availability of evidence and the resources available to the defendant and his counsel.  And more importantly, even when a defendant might have access to information via rumors or innuendo, a prosecutor might well have access to reliable, admissible documents with far more persuasive value.  Due Process cannot condone withholding admissible, exculpatory evidence on the grounds that a defendant, through the exercise of due diligence, could have had access to inadmissible hearsay.

. . . .

If speculation as to the fruitfulness of “pre-trial depositions and other discovery” is sufficient to establish the “availability” of evidence in an undisclosed police report, and is therefore sufficient to excuse a Brady violation, the result will be that Brady violations, including intentional suppression of exculpatory evidence, will be excused.  And on a practical level, such a rule invites a prosecutor to engage in the same speculation in seeking to determine whether to disclose plainly exculpatory evidence under Brady.  The question of “availability” of evidence therefore becomes yet another opportunity for subjective analysis by prosecutors creating a corresponding risk of error—or temptation into gamesmanship.

California Attorneys for Criminal Justice Brief at 3-5, 8, 10.

Ironically, the lack of equivalence the California Attorneys point to between actual exculpatory evidence known to prosecutors, and the hypothetical prospect that defense counsel might obtain access to some form of similar information in the exercise of so-called “due diligence,” is one that is often addressed under the securities laws — the same laws under which Mr. Georgiou was convicted.  Under the securities laws, however, the availability of material information through exercise of due diligence by investors does not relieve companies or company officials of duties they may have to disclose that same information.  That rule applies for good reason, because obtaining hard information from a reliable company source with a duty to disclose it is different from ferreting out what may be the same information by means that may lack the same provenance.  It is a bizarre world where the duties of corporate officers to disclose business information could be more onerous and inflexible than the duties of public prosecutors to maintain a fair criminal process.

The Georgiou case gives the Supreme Court an opportunity to stem the growing trend of Brady non-compliance, and the creation of exceptions to the Brady rule that ignore its core message and effectively impede its goals.  The fairness of criminal proceedings is not a discretionary concept to be toyed with by aggressive prosecutors or judges unwilling to put teeth behind core due process requirements.  The Georgiou cert. petition should be granted, and the Supreme Court should send a clear message to the lower courts that some concepts are sacred.

Among those concepts is the admonition in Berger v. United States, 295 U.S. 78, 88 (1935), that the federal prosecutor “is the representative not of an ordinary party to a controversy, but of a sovereignty … whose interest, therefore, in a criminal prosecution is not that it shall win a case, but that justice shall be done.”  The prosecutor’s duty is not to win, but to “ensure that a miscarriage of justice does not occur,” and that includes complying with Brady by disclosing “evidence favorable to the accused that, if suppressed, would deprive the defendant of a fair trial.”  United States v. Bagley, 473 U.S. 667, 675 (1985).  In Brady, the Court made it clear that it is in society’s broader interest “when criminal trials are fair,” and that “our system of the administration of justice suffers when any accused is treated unfairly.”  373 U.S. at 87.  A vague, unverifiable, and poorly-conceived “due diligence” exception to the Brady rule – which excuses even intentional prosecutorial efforts to prevent a fair trial — eviscerates that paramount need and requirement.

Straight Arrow

August 20, 2015

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