What is Exculpatory Evidence?

Exculpatory evidence is any evidence that tends to support a criminal defendant’s innocence, reduce their culpability, or result in a more lenient sentence. The defense develops exculpatory evidence on its own, but the law requires that prosecutors turn over exculpatory evidence to the defense along with any evidence that could reasonably lead to the discovery of exculpatory evidence. Evidence that could be used to challenge the credibility of a prosecution witness is also exculpatory and must be turned over to the defense. 


The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly for more than 60 years that the prosecutor’s disclosure of exculpatory evidence to the defendant is essential to a fair trial. Their failure to do so violates the defendant’s due process rights. 


As a board-certified Florida criminal defense lawyer, Tampa’s Ben Stechschulte puts the development and discovery of exculpatory evidence at the center of every client’s defense. Florida law demands that prosecutors reveal evidence favorable to the defendant. But prosecutors often fail to recognize the value of evidence they possess to the defendant, or they may deliberately conceal the evidence so a defendant won’t benefit from it. 



Exculpatory Evidence Must Be Disclosed to the Defense 


The adversarial nature of the American criminal justice system operates on the theory that the prosecution and the defense will argue the facts and the law from different perspectives. However, the role of a prosecutor is more complex than merely a one-sided advocate. The prosecutor is a representative of the sovereign government, and their sworn duty is to seek justice, not to win cases or to convict every defendant.  


The leading Supreme Court case addressing the prosecution’s obligation to disclose exculpatory evidence to the defense was Brady v. Maryland i  in which the  Court  held that, 


“Suppression by the prosecution of evidence favorable to an accused who has requested it violates due process where the evidence is material either to guilt or to punishment, irrespective of the good faith or bad faith of the prosecution.” 

The law requires that exculpatory evidence that is “material” be turned over for the defendant to use it during the investigation and preparation of their defense.  


Material evidence is that which could have had an impact on the outcome of the case.  


Over the years, other important cases were decided that developed the Brady Rule, further expanding the nature of the evidence prosecutors were legally obligated to disclose to the defense. 


United States v. Agurs, 427 U.S. 97 (1976): The Supreme Court held that prosecutor must turn over exculpatory evidence even if the defense does not ask for it. 


United States v. Bagley, 437 U.S. 667 (1985): U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the prosecution must disclose “impeachment evidence,” including information that contradicts a prosecution witness’s testimony or their truthfulness. 


Kyles v. Whitley, 514 U.S. 419 (1995): Supreme Court held that prosecutors have a duty to discover and disclose exculpatory evidence held by other government agents, including the police.  


United States v. Giglio, 405 U.S. 150 (1972): The Supreme Court held that the obligation to turn over exculpatory evidence applies to all prosecutors in the office, not only the prosecutor who is trying the particular case in question.  


Examples of Exculpatory Evidence Requiring Disclosure 


Evidence Tending to Support the Defendant’s Innocence: Common examples of this category of exculpatory evidence include the names and statements of witnesses who provide a description of the guilty party inconsistent with the defendant’s appearance, a confession by a different person, scientific evidence inconsistent with the defendant (DNA, blood, fingerprint, etc.), confirmation of the defendant’s alibi, etc. 


Evidence Reducing (Mitigating) the Defendant’s Culpability: This evidence includes information indicating the defendant played a lesser role in the offense. This could include evidence showing that the defendant assaulted a victim only after the victim repeatedly provoked the fight, or that a defendant charged with intentional violence actually acted with gross negligence. 


Evidence Supporting Lenient Sentence: This evidence could include the defendant’s early expression of remorse and acceptance of responsibility, a defendant’s voluntary payment of full restitution, or witness reports that the defendant acted to reduce the injury inflicted by others involved in the crime.  


Evidence Impeaching a Prosecution Witness: Impeaching a witness means challenging their truthfulness and reliability. Information a prosecutor is obliged to disclose will include evidence that the witness changed their version of events, that they have a reputation for lying, that other witnesses contradict the witness’s testimony, that objective facts don’t agree with the witness’s reports, or that the witness has received inducements or rewards to testify. 


Exculpatory Evidence Disclosure Obligations Under Attack 


The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit (including Florida) recently decided an appeal in the case of Green v. Sec’y, Dep’t of Corrs., 28 F.4th 1089 (11th Cir. 2022). The case involved a death row prisoner whose prosecutor failed to disclose to the defense before the trial that the first two police officers who arrived at the scene of a murder believed the victim’s girlfriend was the guilty party. Instead, the girlfriend provided the only witness testimony against the defendant, leading to his conviction and death sentence.  


The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the prosecutor’s failure to disclose the information to the defense was not grounds for a new trial because the police officer’s conclusions were not admissible evidence and thus could not have affected the case’s outcome. 


However, the Brady Rule and the line of Supreme Court cases following Brady have not required the exculpatory evidence to be admissible for the prosecutor to be obliged to disclose it. Instead, the courts have consistently held that any evidence that could reasonably lead to the discovery of further exculpatory evidence must be disclosed.  


A case is now waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court to decide whether to hear the issue. The decision will have a major impact on the rules involving exculpatory evidence across the nation. 


Read More > My Case is Going to the Grand Jury: What Does this Mean?  


Experienced Criminal Defense Lawyers Demand Exculpatory Evidence You Deserve 


The rules of criminal procedure used in both federal and state trial courts are a complex set of interconnected regulations that govern how prosecutors and defense lawyers exchange information before, during, and after trial. Mastering these procedures takes years of practice and experience.  


The skillful practice of criminal defense law results from many years of study and courtroom litigation experience. If you or someone you know is facing criminal charges in the State of Florida, you need to call on the most experienced criminal defense lawyers whose technical proficiency in courtroom rules surpasses the average lawyer.  


Call Tampa’s experienced criminal defense law firm Stechschulte Nell, Attorneys at Law call 813-280-1244 for a case review today.  


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