Good Evening
Good Evening

New York should reform laws on criminal evidence

A murder conviction against Shawn Lawrence was dismissed

A murder conviction against Shawn Lawrence was dismissed after it was revealed that prosecutors withheld evidence in his trial. Above, Lawrence in court in Riverhead on Feb. 15. Credit: Randee Daddona

Shawn Lawrence received egregiously belated justice this year.

The 46-year-old, formerly from North Amityville, was looking at life in prison and already had served nearly six years for a 2010 fatal shooting before irregularities emerged about his prosecution. In February, a Suffolk County judge dismissed the case because the district attorney’s office admitted that 45 items of crucial material, such as witness accounts and video from the case, had not been disclosed in a timely manner before Lawrence’s trial. State Supreme Court Justice William Condon called the prosecutorial misconduct “absolutely stunning.”

Now Lawrence is planning to sue the county, the police department and the district attorney’s office for their various wrongdoing, according to a preliminary court filing last week. State lawmakers should note that there is a legislative solution to help prevent Lawrence and others like him from going through such an ordeal and to spare taxpayers the cost of righting such wrongs.

That’s because antiquated “discovery” rules in New York don’t put strict benchmarks on turning over information to the defense, which can make it difficult for a defendant to receive solid advice about the case, negotiate a plea deal or even prepare adequately for trial.

Whether this happens thanks to willful prosecutorial misconduct or the lack of requirements to quickly share information, it can amount to wrongful convictions. A 1963 Supreme Court ruling requires prosecutors to turn over material that would help prove a defendant innocent, but prosecutors often don’t face consequences for failing to do so. Other states require quick transfer of relevant information and have penalties for violations. But New York is woefully behind.

This year, proposals to reform discovery rules floated around Albany in legislation endorsed by the New York State Bar Association and in a section of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s budget. Unfortunately, the issue was abandoned during budget dealmaking. So the state still waits for discovery reform, an opportunity for Cuomo to prove his reformer credentials. (For the economically minded, a system with fewer wrongful convictions leads to fewer costly lawsuits.)

There are obstacles. District attorneys often oppose discovery reform on the grounds that being required to share some information can endanger witnesses and increase witness intimidation.

This is a real concern, especially in gang-related cases, but compromise is possible. New rules should not allow prosecutors to simply redact information at will, as Cuomo’s budget originally proposed. The bar association suggestion is a good start: If prosecutors think information will endanger witnesses, then get a protective order from a judge.

With Republican control of the State Senate, broad discovery reform will be a tough sell. Yet the legislature must make a start. Some district attorneys, such as in Brooklyn, say they already voluntarily share most information quickly without danger to public safety.

This is an issue of balancing the scales of justice. These reforms are too late for Shawn Lawrence, but not for others awaiting trial in New York who are innocent until they are proven guilty. — The editorial board