Placido Mendoza drove a truck from North Carolina to Tennessee. His passenger was Abel Tavera.
Tavera was a roofer. He later said (to a jury) that he thought he was going to Tennessee to see a construction project.
Under the nails was a large quantity of methamphetamine.
Mr. Tavera went to trial and was convicted. His defense was that he didn’t know that the truck had meth in it.
The driver, Mr. Mendoza, pled guilty before Mr. Tavera’s trial.
Mr. Tavera was convicted and sentenced to 15 years and six months in prison.
After Mr. Tavera’s trial, he learned that Mr. Mendoza told the AUSA – Donald Taylor – that Mr. Tavera had no knowledge of the drug conspiracy he was charged with.
AUSA Taylor never told Mr. Tavera’s lawyer that Mr. Mendoza said Mr. Tavera isn’t guilty.
And, as a result, the jury never heard that the only other guy in the car told the prosecutor that Mr. Tavera didn’t know about the drugs.
As the Sixth Circuit said, “Mendoza’s statements to Taylor were plainly exculpatory.”
The Supreme Court has said that the government has to hand over all information that is exculpatory and that if it fails to do that, the prosecution is fundamentally unfair.
Yet, despite that the law is crystal clear on this, the Sixth Circuit notes that “nondisclosure of Brady material is still a perennial problem, as multiple scholarly accounts attest.”
The procedural history is interesting – Mr. Tavera’s motion for a new trial based on the Brady failure was still pending when the Sixth Circuit decided, in United States v. Tavera, that the Brady violation was so clear that the case had to go to a new trial.
The government did not think that it had to disclose this information. As the Sixth Circuit frames their argument:
the government argues, and the dissent agrees, that Tavera (although confined to his prison cell) or his lawyer should have exercised “due diligence” and discovered the statements by asking Mendoza if he had talked to the prosecutor.
The court of appeals held that the Supreme Court rejected the “due diligence” exception to Brady in Banks v. Dretke, 540 U.S. 668 (2004) when it noted that “[a] rule thus declaring “prosecutor may hide, defendant must seek,” is not tenable in a system constitutionally bound to accord defendants due process.”
Moreover, a rule that a Brady violation is excusable if the defendant or defense lawyer just does more work is kind of stupid. As the Sixth Circuit explained:
The Supreme Court’s rejection of the idea that the “prisoner still has the burden to discover the evidence” is based in part on the fact that the prosecution has the advantage of a large staff of investigators, prosecutors and grand jurors, as well as new technology such as wiretaps of cell phones. That is one of the reasons that these investigators must assist the defendant who normally lacks this assistance and may wrongfully lose his liberty for years if the information they uncover remains undisclosed. The superior prosecutorial investigatory apparatus must turn over exculpatory information.
My favorite part is the suggestion that Mr. Tavera’s lawyer should have interviewed Mr. Mendoza – because there is just about exactly zero chance that any competent lawyer would let his client talk to a co-defendant about the facts of the case while he’s trying to work out a deal with the government.
Because “[t]his case shows once again how prosecutors substitute their own judgment of the defendant’s guilt for that of the jury” the court of appeals reversed and recommended that “the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Eastern District of Tennessee conduct an investigation of why this prosecutorial error occurred and make sure that such Brady violations do not continue.”