Leonardo Angiulo: Your Rights as a Defendant
Monday, August 27, 2012
In any criminal case, the way a defendant collects evidence held by the Commonwealth is called the discovery process. As you can imagine, our system has evolved a little past the defense attorney saying to the prosecution, “Gimme what ya got.” Within the Massachusetts Rules of Criminal Procedure, available here, there are specific provisions for what evidence must be automatically provided by the government. Mass. R. Crim. P. 14(a)(1)(A) available here, lists out some things that everyone would agree is important evidence and must be turned over.
For example, reviewing grand jury minutes after indictment is incredibly important because that’s where the core of the Commonwealth's theory of culpability, and their expected evidence in support, will be summarized. In addition, another important provision of Rule 14 is the requirement that any statements of a defendant, or co-defendant, be provided. It's fair to say that knowing what they claim you said is important information to have prior to starting a trial.
Let's be clear. Trial preparation is what the pretrial discovery process is all about. In order to be prepared to challenge allegations an attorney has to know exactly what those allegations are, who is making them, and what evidence supports the charge. Not only is the discovery process a way to get these questions answered it is also a way to begin mapping out the defense strategy. Where the Commonwealth has the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt at any trial it makes sense that they would have the obligation to present their evidence, or as an analogy “show their cards,” first.
As I mentioned earlier, the pretrial discovery process can turn into a waiting game. Part of this is because this first round of discovery can take a while. While this column is not long enough to discuss the factors that contribute to delays in the discovery process, suffice to say it’s a complicated issue that involves the intersection of personnel and budget deficits. The good news for defendants is that not only are there obligations in Rule 14, there are also consequences for failing to meet those obligations.
Mass. R. Crim. P. 14(c) makes it clear that the automatic discovery provisions are not hollow promises. Given the fact that the evidence within this provision is so important to preparing a defense, the court will act as a referee of sorts to enforce these rules. If the Commonwealth fails to meet its obligations under Rule 14, consequences can even include the exclusion of certain evidence that might be necessary to prosecuting the case or even dismissal of the charges outright.
In full disclosure, Rule 14 isn't only about what the Commonwealth has to do. Some parts also discuss what the Defense must provide and when. A fair statement is that after the first round of discovery, defense attorneys really start working to identify what else they need to see and what else they want to use to defend the matter. Depending on the circumstances, this may cause the case to take longer to get to trial. This time should be considered an investment in a person's future rather than a delay because there is no other way to prepare for trial.
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