There’s an interesting conversation going on over at Sarena Straus’ Prosecutor Post-Script where in a series of posts and comments the author and readers discuss various issues in prosecutorial ethics.
In “Who decides when to prosecute?” she discusses the considerations involved when a prosecutor “overrules” the wishes of a complainant in an assault case. Sarena points out this comes in two forms: victims unhappy with a plea agreement that is too lenient, and ones that don’t want to prosecute the case at all.
The first post sparks a question from a reader: “"It's interesting to see the thought process behind when to prosecute. What sort of plea deal would you make with someone who was unlikely to be convicted at trial?” Sarena answers the question in part by posing a “typical hypothetical offered by DA's offices when interviewing prospective ADAs”:
Lets say that you have a one witness case that you are about to take to trial. It is a case where you believe in the defendant's guilt and where proof beyond a reasonable doubt is possible. Without that one witness, however, you cannot prove the case.
The morning that you are about to start trial, you get a call that your witness died. You go to the courtroom, but before you can tell the judge that you have to dismiss the case, the defense attorney says that his client wants to plead guilty.
Do you take the plea or do you tell him your witness is dead and that you have to dismiss the case?
Since I never interviewed with a County or District Attorney’s Office, hypotheticals like that take me back to my law school days…let me give it a shot.
There’s really two separate questions being asked here (which is what makes it interesting): (1) As a prosecutor, are you required by Brady v. Maryland to disclose the unavailability of witnesses to the defense attorney? (2) If not, should you anyway?
My off the cuff guess (read: I didn’t bother to research it this morning while writing this post) is that the caselaw interpreting Brady doesn’t require the prosecutor to disclose that information. If anyone out there knows of caselaw to the contrary, please contact me, because it would somewhat put the issue to rest.
(I’d also like to think that the best defense lawyers out there do thorough investigations, including, of course, interviewing all witnesses…but it sounds like the witness just died, so I can see the attorney not knowing.)
The second question therefore becomes “Under what circumstances should you disclose this information?” In a lengthy comment WindyPundit suggests:
There's a lot to be said for telling the defense attorney how lucky his client is and dismissing the case, just to improve your rep as a straight shooter.
True, but not all prosecutors are concerned about their reputations in the criminal defense bar. My experience tells me that the defense lawyer needs to worry about his own reputation for truthfulness and honesty, more than a prosecutor need worry about his.
Sarena promises to give her own answer soon, but states that she thinks most comments so far are coming from the defense perspective, and would like other prosecutors to weigh in first…(that means you too Steanso)