From [NY Law] All judges who preside over criminal cases in New York state will order prosecutors to disclose information favorable to the defense at least 30 days before a trial on a felony, a change that some legal experts say will dramatically change the way trials are conducted.
“This newly adopted measure will go a long way to help prevent and remedy systemic errors that contribute to wrongful convictions,” Chief Judge Janet DiFiore said in a statement Wednesday.
While many state and federal judges have issued such orders on their own, it is the first time that an entire state has sent such a directive to all its judges, said Lucian Chalfen, director of public information for the state court system. Judges were informed of the rule in a memo from Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks distributed Monday afternoon.
“Number one, this is a very big deal,” said Barry Scheck, past president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and co-founder of the Innocence Project. “Once prosecutors are ordered by a court to do that, they’re going to pay a lot more attention because they don’t want to be a position in which they can be held in contempt for failing to do so.”
In consultation with the Innocence Project, the state’s Justice Task Force recommended the rule change in a February report. Task force recommendations have also led to expansion of the DNA databank, video-recording of interrogations and procedural safeguards for photo identifications.
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., a member of the task force, welcomed the rule change.
“I think that prosecutors—who I believe are always trying to do what is right in the case—that given all the issues around wrongful convictions that an order is appropriate and we should not be afraid of a judge telling us what the law requires us to do,” he said.
New York state has had 234 cases since 1989 in which defendants have been exonerated, according to The National Registry of Exonerations. Eighty-eight involved the withholding of exculpatory evidence, said Sam Gross, founder and senior editor of the registry and a law professor at the University of Michigan.
The registry does not count a case as an exoneration until charges are dismissed. But several New York cases from this year have made it to the group’s watch list or have been listed as an exoneration:
• A Long Island man serving a 25-year sentence for child sexual assault was ordered released in July when a judge found that prosecutors withheld evidence about a detective’s long history of allegedly coercing and falsifying confessions.
• In Brooklyn, a murder conviction was vacated after 20 years because the jury was never told that a victim recanted her eyewitness identification.
• In the Bronx, a judge ordered a new trial for a man who spent 20 years in prison for the slaying of a retired police officer. The Bronx District Attorney’s Office failed to disclose the testimony of an informant who said that another man admitted to being the shooter.