The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides Americans with one of their most fundamental rights, the right to a speedy and fair trial. Judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit fear that repetitive, troubling conduct by federal prosecutors may be effectively denying those accused of crimes in North Carolina of this right. In apparently unprecedented public comments, judges have brought their concerns to light.
Aberrant occurrences or a pattern of conduct?
The conduct in question involves handling evidence and testimony in a manner that denies attorneys the opportunity to adequately prepare defendants for trial. In one case, prosecutors didn’t disclose to defense that one of the defendant’s victims would testify at a hearing, preventing defense attorneys from being able to adequately prepare for the witness’ testimony.
In another case, prosecutors failed to provide the defense with grand jury testimony that might assist the defendant, contrary to the judge’s suggestion that they do just that. In yet another case, prosecutors misrepresented information in reports regarding misidentification of the defendant by key witnesses.
In an apparent attempt to remedy these problems, the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced changes to its staff and alterations in its official policies, including the adoption of different rules for handling criminal evidence. While the policy may prevent prosecutors from claiming that they are unaware of their disclosure obligations, it is not actually binding, nor does it carry the force of law.
Protection in North Carolina state courts
In contrast to the problems in the federal system, under North Carolina statues prosecutors must share any evidence they gather with defendants to avoid trial by ambush. Violations of such statutory provisions may result in severe penalties, such as:
Exclusion of prosecution evidence
Sanctions against prosecutors, including loss of licensure