What happens when key police files are found in the trunk of an officer’s car as the case is heading to trial?
Before Tim Howard’s case went to trial, his lawyers complained to the judge that the prosecutor had not turned over important information he had about other possible assailants. The surrender of such information to defense attorneys is required by law.
Howard’s lawyers came across the information by accident late in their preparation for trial. Incensed, they asked the judge to dismiss the charges against Howard. The lawyers argued that by improperly withholding the information–legally called “discovery”–the prosecutor had violated the laws guaranteeing defendants a fair trial. But the judge denied their motion. Moreover, he told Howard’s lawyers that they could not let the jury know about “the piecemeal fashion” in which the information had been released.
After Howard’s trial and conviction, his lawyers challenged the judge’s ruling in their appeal to the Arkansas Supreme Court.
Chief Justice W.H. “Dub” Arnold considered the problem in light of the law on discovery. He observed that the prosecuting attorney is required to turn over to defense attorneys any information in his possession “which tends to negate the guilt of the defendant” and that prosecutors are bound to disclose the exculpatory information “in sufficient time to permit the defense to make beneficial use of it.”
There was no dispute about the chronology. Here’s how Chief Justice W.H. “Dub” Arnold outlined it in his opinion:
Jan. 17, 1998 (three weeks after the murders)–Howard’s defense attorneys filed a motion for discovery, seeking all information about the case that was known to the prosecuting attorney.
Jan. 27, 1998–The prosecutor sent Howard’s attorneys a file containing 101 items, along with a cover letter from the prosecutor stating that he would provide any additional information that he acquired.
November 1998–One of Howard’s defense lawyers went to the Ashdown Police Department to review photographs concerning the investigation. “After a long delay,” Justice Arnold wrote, “the defense was told about interviews with nine witnesses who were previously unknown to the defense.” The witnesses’ statements “included information stating that Brian Day was dealing in stolen merchandise; Brian Day was seen arguing with a Caucasian male about money; Brian Day was dealing with non-local people; a new Corvette was seen in the Days’ driveway the morning of the murders; and, Brian Day owed someone about $2,000.”
Shortly before one of the pretrial hearing, Arnold noted, “There was also a part of the Howard file found in the trunk of a police car.” This too was then turned over to Howard’s legal team.
But Arnold and the justices who sided with him saw no problem in what had transpired. They ruled that Howard’s right to a fair trial had not been adversely affected, since the prosecutor had, in fact, surrendered the information once the defense team stumbled upon it.
As Arnold interpreted the law, Howard’s right to a fair trial would have been jeopardized only if the exculpatory information had never been provided.
“Here,” he explained, “the information was turned over to Howard when the state was presented with the information, or when the state learned of the information.”
Since Howard’s attorneys had received all of the information seven months before the trial, “there was no discovery violation.”
Of the seven justices who reviewed the case, only Ray Thornton even noted what Thornton called “the state’s last-minute responses in producing evidence sought during discovery.” And all Thornton said was that was that he was “troubled” by the situation. (End.)