Have you ever tried to find a needle in a haystack? I have not, and I sure do not want the opportunity either. Figuratively, however, we have all had to search for a needle in a haystack at one point or another. Whether we had to find a receipt buried in a drawer of hundreds of discarded receipts so that we could return a purchased item, comb thorough an encyclopedia-sized book for the one reference we needed to cite, or dug through piles of laundry for that one particular shirt we needed for an interview, we all know how that experience feels: frustrating.
Criminal trials are a search for the truth. The district attorney’s office must provide the defense with all discovery related to the criminal case. One reason the prosecution must provide discovery by statute is to avoid surprise evidence at trial. For instance, a criminal defendant would not receive a fair trial if the prosecution introduced seemingly incriminating DNA evidence during trial without giving the defense a chance to sufficiently review the DNA results or retain its own expert to combat the allegations.
Likewise, if during the pendency of a murder trial, the gun was suddenly introduced into evidence when both the district attorney and the defense had been unaware the firearm had ever been located, the criminal defendant would not receive a fair trial. His attorney’s theory of the case would go out the door, the arguments previously made to the jury would be inapplicable. The defense would have spent hours upon hours preparing for a case without having the complete picture, the full evidence.
Police officers write police reports on all of the important information learned and recovered throughout the course of the investigation. If the officers receive additional information after writing the initial police report, they simply file a supplemental police report for the assigned case number. When officers find a murder weapon that is of course important information that is included— or should be included — in the narrative of the report. Officers should also include DNA results in their reports. After all, each officer receives training on report writing while in the Academy and knows all of the important information must be included in the report. The reports must be complete and accurate as well. This process helps ensure a fair trial.
Under the law, Police departments are an extension of the prosecuting agency. Therefore, the law deems that any information known to law enforcement is also information known by the district attorney’s office. It is required that police turn over all discovery to the prosecuting agency. Again, this method ensures that a criminal defendant’s Constitutional right to a fair trial is not violated.
Many police officers comply with these rules necessary for fair criminal trials. After all, not only do their police reports help them refresh their own recollection if they have to testify at the trial, but also the information helps the district attorney sift through the evidence and decide his or her theory of the case.
Occasionally, however, you come across police officers who want to backdoor information into the trial. This type of conduct is unethical and deprives both sides—the prosecution and the defense—a fair trial.
For instance, after numerous reviews of the police reports, both the prosecution and defense separately decide on the best way to approach the case. The prosecution has the burden of proof, and thus, presents its case first. The defense attorney cross-examines on the issues important to the defense. Throughout the course of cross-examination, the district attorney and the designated investigator, the lead police officer on the case, can get a sense of the defense theory.
The problem arises when just prior to the close of the People’s case-in-chief, the investigating officer alerts the district attorney of seemingly new evidence to combat the defense’s claim. Neither the district attorney nor the defense knew that this information existed prior to that moment. Why? Because the information was conveniently left out of all police reports for the case.
The lead officer on the case contends that the district attorney complied with the discovery statute—the district attorney’s office turned over one ostensibly nondescript picture of the scene of the incident that shows a particular dirt disturbance in discovery. Mind you, all the other dirt disturbances that are crucial for the case are clearly marked; this one is not. Nevertheless, the officer whispers to the district attorney as he argues on record for the court to admit the new information that the defense could deduce the importance of the information from the picture. In reality, if the district attorney assigned to the case did not even deduce such information, even after multiple conversations with the lead investigating officer, how could the defense? Fortunately, in an instance like this, the judge would exclude the information from trial.
While this is a rare situation, it once again shows how the cards are stacked against a criminal defendant. Law enforcement will do anything in its power to make individuals appear guilty or to disguise evidence. If the public never learns of such situations, then the country will never make any changes to the criminal justice system, a system that is not as fair and just as the government wants us to believe.