SCOTUS: DAs not liable for evidence-withholding prosecutors

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that District Attorneys cannot be held liable for failing to train their prosecutors about their obligation to turn over evidence that favors the defense.

The Supreme Court case was brought by a Maryland man convicted for attempted armed robbery after prosecutors withheld a crime lab report exonerating him. When he was later on trial for murder, he chose not to testify because of the robbery conviction, and was found guilty of murder. The lab report was uncovered a month before he was to be executed. Both convictions were thrown out, and he was acquitted of murder at a second trial.

The man sued the DA’s office, claiming that his convictions were the result of the DA’s “deliberate indifference” to prosecutors’ lack of training on what are called Brady violations. But in a 5-4 decision, written by Judge Clarence Thomas, the Supreme Court found that “a district attorney’s office may not be held liable for failure to train its prosecutors based on a single Brady violation.”

“Prosecutors not only are equipped but are ethically bound to know what Brady entails and to perform legal research when they are uncertain,” Thomas wrote. “Thus, recurring constitutional violations are not the “obvious consequence” of failing to provide prosecutors with formal in-house training.”

Here in Westchester, the last two district attorneys have come under fire over allegations that their prosecutors withheld evidence.

This past January, a judge overturned the 1992 manslaughter conviction of Louis Hairston, finding that the prosecutor in the case withheld evidence that could have exonerated him in a fatal shooting. Hairston was prosecuted under late District Attorney Carl Vergari, and the prosecutor in the case, George Bolen, retired. Hairston is due back in court for a pre-trial conference on May 5.

Former District Attorney Jeanine Pirro was sharply criticized for withholding evidence in the Anthony DiSimone case.  DiSimone’s murder conviction was overturned in 2007 when it was discovered that boxes of evidence pointing to the possibility that another man killed Louis Balancio were never turned over to the defense. DiSimone, who served seven years in prison before getting his conviction thrown out, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to time served.

Rebecca Baker

Rebecca Baker joined The Journal News in March 2004. She covers Eastchester, Bronxville and Tuckahoe, and was previously the state and county courts reporter in Westchester County. In prior jobs, she covered the Town of Greenburgh and Rockland County government and politics. Before coming to The Journal News, she was a municipal reporter for newspapers in New Haven, Conn. and Warren, Ohio.