Monday, June 2, 2014
Second Circuit Reverses Convictions Due to Prosecutorial Misconduct and Exclusion of Good-Faith Evidence
The Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which issues complete reversals in only about five percent of the criminal cases it hears, last week in an opinion by Judge Jed S. Rakoff (sitting by designation) reversed the trial conviction of two individuals and a corporation for environmental crimes involving asbestos removal, and ordered a new trial. United States v. Certified Environmental Services, Inc., et al. (see here). The reversal was based on the denial of a fair trial due cumulatively to the exclusion of evidence of good faith to demonstrate the defendants' lack of intent (an issue not discussed here) and prosecutorial misconduct in improper "bolstering" during the opening and closing arguments. The Court denied that part of the defendants' appeal based on Brady v. Maryland.
The decision does not concern any novel legal grounds. Perhaps most significant in the white-collar area is its detailed discussion of the proper and improper use by prosecutors of the cooperation agreements their witnesses commonly enter into with the government. Since many, probably most, white-collar cases involve cooperating government witnesses, prosecutorial introduction of and comments on cooperation agreements frequently occur in white-collar trials. Here, the prosecutor improperly bolstered the witnesses' testimony on numerous occasions, both in the opening and closing arguments, by referring directly and indirectly to the self-serving language that prosecutors routinely place in the cooperation agreements they draft to the effect that the witnesses are obligated to tell the truth. Prosecutors and defense attorneys would do well to review the opinion to determine when and how the government may disclose and use the truth-telling requirement language of cooperation agreements during testimony and in argument.
The opinion also excuses, but does not condone, the improper failure of the government to turn over handwritten notes by a testifying agent which were discovered in the later examination of another agent and belatedly revealed to the defense. The notes should have been revealed earlier, says the Court, not only since they included evidence favorable to the defense, but also pursuant to Fed. R. Crim. Pro. 16(a)(1)(B)(ii), a discovery rule, and 18 U.S.C. 3500, the Jencks Act. However, since the notes were, however belatedly, turned over and the defense had an opportunity to review them, examine the later-testifying agent about their content, and recall the earlier witness if it chose, and since their timely disclosure would not have changed the verdict, in any case there was no Brady violation. The opinion thus demonstrates that late provision of Brady (or Rule 16 or Jencks) by the government during trial will virtually never be grounds for reversal, at least not in the Second Circuit.