Prosecutors and Defense Attorneys alike were buzzing about on Friday afternoon, discussing the hearing in the 180th District Court over whether or not prosecutor Denise Oncken had wilfully withheld Brady information on a Sexual Assault of a Child case. At issue was whether or not the head of the District Attorney's Child Abuse Division had failed to notify defense attorneys Bill Stradley and Lisa Andrews that the child victim in the case had initially stated she had been sexually assaulted by a black man when the Defendant in the case was white.
As noted in Brian Rogers' article, Judge Van Culp ruled that the exculpatory evidence had indeed been withheld, but since it had been discovered before the trial was over, the error was harmless and therefore no mistrial would be granted. That's a good thing for the District Attorney's Office because if a mistrial had been granted due to prosecutorial misconduct, Glen Kahlden (the Defendant) would be a free man. The State would have been barred from retrying the case.
But this may have been a case of winning a battle and losing a war for the D.A.'s Office, because in Judge Culp's finding, he officially acknowledged that the Office had committed the most unpardonable of sins that a prosecutorial agency can commit -- they had withheld evidence that pointed towards a Defendant's innocence.
And although the act of a Brady violation is most definitely inexcusable, it is usually explainable on how it happened. (NOTE: Before people start jumping on me for my phraseology on this sentence, please read it more closely.)
The Defense Bar loves nothing more than to loudly announce that prosecutors withhold Brady information all the time. In their mind, they picture prosecutors sitting in their office, twirling their moustaches like Snidely Whiplash and gleefully giggling "The DNA completely exonerates this guy, but I'll never tell his lawyer!"
That's a bunch of crap.
But where prosecutors can often find themselves in trouble is not doing their Due Diligence in going through their files and making sure that they themselves are aware of the Brady information. Although they have been told time and time again that their duty under Brady extends to being responsible for the actions of the police agency and any other representative of the State, they are often normally more than content to rely on just what's in the file.
In fact, the standard response of a prosecutor to most accusations of a Brady violation is to say "Well Judge, I've maintained an open file policy and the defense attorneys were always welcome to come look at it. That information was in there."
I'm keenly aware of that explanation, because that's what I did as a prosecutor. I kept a wide open file that was available to the defense even after trial had begun. I rarely, if ever, had a work product file that I wouldn't share with the Defense. If a defense attorney didn't know about something in that file, it was his own damn fault for not looking closely enough at it, right?
The short answer to that is "maybe". That's the lazy method of complying with Brady and it's one that is utilized because of the massive case loads that all prosecutors carry. The problem arises when (as in Denise Oncken's situation) there is something not readily visible by just having an Open File, because it isn't written in the offense report. Although I wasn't at the hearing, my understanding is that the information about the initial outcry describing a black assailant was in a taped statement. Furthermore, the investigating officer admitted to intentionally not writing it down in the offense report. Theoretically, the information was available and out there, but nobody had pointed it out to Stradley and Andrews.
And let me just editorialize about Bill Stradley and Lisa Andrews real quick. These are two outstanding attorneys with excellent reputations for their trial skills and work ethic. They are also extremely diplomatic in dealing with the prosecution. There is no way in hell that they just somehow "missed" that exculpatory evidence. If they were unaware of it as trial began, it was not going to be because they didn't do their homework. They would have never made an accusation of a Brady violation lightly.
But this does not mean that Denise Oncken needs to be vilified over this. I would imagine that her failure to turn over the evidence on this case was more based on a lack of Due Diligence than it was on Snidely Whiplash-esque behavior.
But that doesn't make it any less wrong.
While I'm sure that Lykos and Leitner are already in the midst of their latest knee-jerk reaction to this debacle, I would encourage them to take a step back and think before they react to it. I know that isn't really their style and they are probably already plotting to have Oncken executed on the courthouse lawn, but what they really need to be doing is formulating a well-reasoned way of ensuring this doesn't happen again.
Here's my two cents (for what it's worth):
1. If the Lykos Administration has done anything positive, it has been in the way of sharing information on cases. The step of giving the defense copies of the offense report was huge. I would suggest that they expand on this a bit. In addition to giving copies of the offense reports to the defense, also provide copies of all recorded statements, crime scene videos, photographs and reports. Keep in play all the same rules as you do for the offense reports, and you'll be protected.
I know that the defense bar isn't entitled to copies of these things under the Rules of Evidence, but we weren't entitled to the offense reports either. That policy has worked well, and this one can too.
2. In dealing with the statements of child victims, I know that these statements can't be turned over to the defense bar, nor should they be. You can cover yourself under Brady by having a standard form that basically is addressed to Defense Counsel, listing all taped interviews of child witnesses that are in the possession of the State and telling them that they are available for viewing. Have a form for Defense Counsel to sign.
3. Keep track of what supplement number had been reached when the offense report was turned over to defense counsel. Make sure that when a case gets set for trial that no new supplements have been added.
4. Keep a checklist. Have an itemized list of everything that has been turned over to the Defense and make sure it has everything on it a Defense Attorney could possibly ask for.
5. Pat Lykos needs to issue a blanket statement to all law enforcement personnel in Harris County that they have a duty to include all of their information in their offense reports. If they have information that needs to be kept confidential from the defense than they need to call the prosecutors on that case immediately. It's a policy statement that needs to be made and carried out if she is going to protect her prosecutors.
I'm sure there are some more things that can be done, and if you've got some ideas, let's hear them.