Earlier this month, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in a New York homicide case discussing the obligation that the prosecution has to disclose evidence to the defense. Ultimately, the court reversed the defendant’s murder conviction because it found that the prosecutions’ failure to provide video evidence undermined confidence in the jury’s verdict.
According to the court’s opinion, the defendant was convicted of murder. At the defendant’s trial, several eyewitnesses testified to seeing the defendant in the area immediately before the shooting. One witness identified the defendant as the shooter, but admitted that she only had a brief view of the side of the shooter’s face. The second witness saw the defendant and the victim in the vicinity of the shooting, but lost sight of the two men about a minute before the shooting. The third witness knew both the defendant and the victim, and testified that the defendant ran up to the victim, began arguing with him, and then shot him. The third witness had pending robbery charges against him, and was offered a deal in exchange for his testimony.
In his closing, defense counsel argued that there should have been a video of the shooting, given that it occurred outside an apartment building that had surveillance cameras visible. In his closing, the prosecutor noted that detectives were able to obtain video footage from nearby, and argued that it was “common sense” that if video footage of the apartment complex was available, it would have been presented.
As it turns out, there was video from in front of the apartment complex, and the prosecutor viewed the video before trial. However, it was not provided to the defendant or his attorney. The defendant sought to vacate his conviction based on the prosecution’s failure to provide mandatory discovery. However, the trial court and intermediate appellate court affirmed his conviction, finding that the video would not have likely changed the result of the trial. The defendant appealed.
On appeal to the state’s high court, the defendant again argued that the prosecution deprived him of a fair trial by withholding the video evidence. This time, the court agreed, reversing the defendant’s conviction. The court explained that, when a defendant later learns of the existence of certain evidence that he did not specifically request during discovery, a conviction can only be reversed if there is a “reasonable probability” that the result would have been different if the evidence was available.
Here, the court concluded that the video could have been used to impeach the third witness, and could also have led to the discovery of additional witnesses. On top of that, the prosecutor’s statements in his closing argument amplified the prejudice by implicitly claiming that defense counsel’s mention of the missing video was a distraction technique. Taking all of this into account, the court determined that the prosecution’s failure to hand over the video “undermined confidence in the verdict and therefore the defendant is entitled to a new trial.”
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