More than 50 people rallied outside the Bronx Supreme Court on Monday morning, demanding changes to New York state law that, they claim, would make the judicial process more just and efficient. The revisions protesters championed would require prosecutors to share evidence they have gathered about a crime with the accused and his or her attorneys during the pre-trial “discovery” period.
The rally organizer, the reform group Discovery for Justice, was joined by other advocacy groups, labor unions, public defenders and elected officials.
Demonstrators called on the state legislature to repeal Criminal Procedure Law 240, which lays out the current rules under which the prosecution may withhold evidence from the defense until the moment a trial begins. They urged legislators to enact Criminal Procedure Law 245, which, they say, would expand access to information for prosecutors and defenders alike, reduce the high number of false guilty pleas in plea bargains, decrease the possibility of wrongful convictions, and speed up the trial process. New York is one of 13 states that has not adopted such policies, known as “open discovery.”
“We need to make sure that our prosecutors and our defense teams are operating on the same playing field,” said City Council member Andy King, who represents District 12, the northeast section of the Bronx, and marched at the front of the demonstration. “It should be about justice. It should be about the truth. Not about who can win a case because winning a case doesn’t always hold the right person accountable.”
The council member said he was going to introduce a resolution urging the repeal of Criminal Procedure Law 240 at the City Council meeting on October 7.
Over the past 10 years, different versions of the revised law have passed the majority Democratic New York State Assembly, but expired without being taken up by the Republican dominated State Senate, according to public defender Susannah Karlsson.
Before Monday’s rally started, members of Discovery for Justice gave out out leaflets near Hostos Community College on East 149th Street in the Bronx. The flyers bore an image of a blindfolded man standing in darkness behind bars, his hands gripping them tightly. Bold letters jumped off the page: “Withholding evidence equals injustice. Open and early discovery of evidence equals justice.”
Lined up behind a ten-foot-long banner with the image of the blindfolded man on it, marchers left Hostos at 11 a.m. and headed toward the Bronx Supreme Court. They all wore black T-shirts with the same image on it. As they marched, the group chanted in English and Spanish, “The people, united, will never be defeated. El pueblo, unido, jamás será vencido.” Waving his fist, King led the chants in a booming voice, his white shirt collar and bow tie showing beneath his black T-shirt.
About 15 minutes later, the group arrived at the Bronx Supreme Court on East 161st Street. On the steps of the somber, tall courthouse, also known as the Hall of Justice, representatives of unions, clergy members, and veterans gave speeches calling for an end to the injustice and unfair treatment of innocent people. New Yorkers who had been wrongfully arrested or convicted and their advocates testified about the damages the current system allows and spoke of the urgency of an open discovery law.
Jeffrey Deskovic, who was wrongly convicted of rape in 1990 at the age of 17 and was exonerated after 16 years in prison, said that open discovery would have prevented his ordeal.
His attorneys never knew that there were three complaints filed against the medical examiner whose fraudulent testimony was key in wrongfully convicting him, Deskovic said.
In New York State, from 1963 to 2014, 16.73 per cent of all the cases of exoneration involved people wrongfully convicted because of evidence withheld through lack of open discovery, according to data complied by Dannielle Hille, a member of It Could Happen to You, an advocacy group working against wrongful convictions.
Inside the courthouse, Judge Robert Rorres expressed some caution.
“I believe in open discovery,” he said, “but we just can’t throw the door full open and turn over every piece of paper. There have to be some common sense and balance.” Judge Rorres said that medical records and material that reveals irrelevant misdemeanors should be handled delicately.
Opponents often charge that open discovery would reveal the names of witnesses and expose them to harm. A letter signed by Frank Sedita, the president of the District Attorney Association of the State of New York, asserts that open discovery would be “disastrous, especially given the increasing frequency of witness intimidation.”
Public defender Karlsson said the confidentiality issue should not be a hindrance to open discovery. “When there is a safety issue, we defense attorneys will probably consent to holding back sensitive information under certain circumstances,” she said.