What Is Exculpatory Evidence?

Exculpatory evidence is material that is favorable to a defendant in a criminal case. It can exonerate the defendant or lessen their culpability, leading to more favorable outcomes. Prosecutors must hand over to defendants any exculpatory evidence they possess as a part of the individual's due process rights. They must also provide impeachment evidence – that which could call into question a witness’s credibility. Failure to disclose exculpatory or impeachment material could cause the defendant to be wrongfully convicted of a crime or receive a harsher punishment than is necessary. It can also lead to sanctions upon the prosecutor.

At Lessem, Newstat & Tooson, LLP, our Los Angeles lawyers fully review the evidence in our clients’ cases to protect their rights and seek just outcomes. Schedule a consultation by calling (800) 462-7160 or submitting an online contact form today.

What Material Could Be Considered Exculpatory Evidence?

Any information favorable to the defendant that could affect the finding in a criminal case or the penalties the judge imposes is considered exculpatory evidence. The material might be instrumental in proving that the defendant is not guilty or that they had a much smaller role in the alleged offense than initially claimed.

Examples of exculpatory evidence include materials:

  • Exonerating the defendant: This information would counter the prosecutor’s claim that the defendant is guilty. It could include things such as a witness stating that the defendant is not the one who robbed the store, an accident reconstructionist concluding that someone else caused the collision, another person admitting they vandalized a building, or DNA results that don’t match the defendant’s genetic material.
  • Reducing the defendant’s role: This evidence would show that, although the defendant might have been involved in the crime, they were not the primary actor. For example, the defendant might have been present during a robbery where a person was fatally shot, but it was their friend who pulled the trigger.
  • Disproving an element of the offense: This information would negate the prosecutor’s claim that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of an element of a crime. For instance, the prosecutor might allege that the defendant committed aggravated arson, but material exists demonstrating that the defendant did not act with the intent to injure anyone when they started the fire.

Similar to exculpatory evidence is impeachment evidence. Like exculpatory, impeachment material can have a favorable influence on the defendant’s case. It differs from exculpatory in that it concerns the credibility of witnesses as opposed to being directly related to the defendant.

Examples of impeachment evidence include:

  • Instances of false reports made by a witness.
  • A witness contradicting their own statements or someone else providing contradictory information.
  • Materials damaging a witness’s expertise.
  • Reports showing that a witness has a history of lying.

The Prosecutor’s Requirement for Disclosing Exculpatory Evidence

Prosecutors are legally obligated to disclose exculpatory and impeachment evidence. This requirement stems from the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the 1963 case Brady v. Maryland. Mr. Brady was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death along with a Mr. Boblit, even though Mr. Brady maintained that, while he participated in the robbery, he did not fatally shoot the victim. It was later discovered that Mr. Boblit had confessed to the shooting, but the prosecutor withheld that information.

The Supreme Court ruled that the prosecutor not revealing evidence favorable to Mr. Brady violated his due process protections under the Fourteenth Amendment. As a result, prosecutors are required to disclose exculpatory and impeachment evidence material in a criminal case.

California Penal Code § 1054.1 expands on this requirement by making it so that prosecutors must provide the defendant with any exculpatory evidence they or investigators possess, even if it’s not considered material to the case. The disclosure must be done automatically, before a defendant pleads guilty or no contest.

The Consequences of Not Disclosing Exculpatory Evidence

If the prosecutor does not provide exculpatory evidence, the consequences could be dire for the defendant. Their rights would have been violated, and they would have been subject to an unfair trial. Because of this, they could be wrongfully convicted or sentenced to years in prison for a crime they had a small role in.

For the prosecutor, they could be accused of professional misconduct. Failure to disclose exculpatory information is also a crime, which means they could face criminal charges.

Protect Your Rights with the Help of an Attorney

The prosecutor must hand over any evidence they have that is favorable to the defendant. Getting the material is one thing but knowing what to do with it and how to apply it to a case is another. A criminal defense lawyer can analyze the evidence and build arguments from it.

Learn how our Los Angeles team can help by contacting Lessem, Newstat & Tooson, LLP at (800) 462-7160.