New York’s top judge has issued an order that will, at the start of each criminal trial, admonish prosecutors of their duty to promptly hand over information that could exonerate defendants and remind defense attorneys that they must properly represent their clients.
Both sides in all criminal trials will be regularly reminded of their duties at the start of trial, officials said, adding that New York is the first state to implement such a requirement. The new rule only supplements existing obligations under the law, they said.
“This newly adopted measure will go a long way to help prevent and remedy systemic errors that contribute to wrongful convictions, acting as a consistent reminder to prosecutors and defense attorneys of their respective — and critically important — roles in the fair administration of justice,” Chief Judge Janet DiFiore said in a news release.
DiFiore, who is a former Westchester County district attorney, and Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence K. Marks hailed the adoption of the new rule — basically a reminder of the attorneys’ obligations to fairly prosecute or represent defendants — as a tool that will create fairer outcomes in trials.
Such a reminder was recommended by the state’s Justice Task Force, which in February released its Report on Attorney Responsibility in Criminal Cases.
The order requires prosecutors to promptly hand over so-called Brady material that could favorably influence a defendant at trial. Such information could include “information that impeaches the credibility of witnesses, exculpates or reduces the degree of the defense, or mitigates the degree of the defendant’s culpability or punishment,” officials said.
Last May, Suffolk Assistant District Attorney Glenn Kurtzrock resigned his post after Brendan Ahern of Hauppauge, a lawyer representing Messiah Booker in a murder trial, discovered Kurtzrock had withheld key evidence that was favorable to Booker.
The consequences were severe: Ahern listed dozens of instances of evidence that Kurtzrock withheld, including some that suggested other people had confessed to the crime and witness accounts blaming someone other than Booker for the slaying.
The second-degree murder charge was dismissed and Booker pleaded guilty to second-degree attempted burglary, requiring him to serve five years in prison instead of the 25 years to life he would have faced on the murder charge.
Additionally, the order says, defense attorneys must “provide constitutionally effective representation in the case, such as keeping the client informed about the case, providing reasonable advice regarding any plea offers, and performing a reasonable investigation of both the facts and law pertinent to the case.”
A copy of the order also will be given to defendants.
“The statewide application of these directives will serve to promote the quality of justice in New York, increasing judges’ ability to ensure that prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys appearing before them have a clear, thorough understanding of their legal and ethical obligations,” said Marks.