People v. Darrin McGhee (SSM)


Issue: Is a defendant entitled to a new trial on Brady grounds where the prosecution conceals an exculpatory statement made by a “very observant” eyewitness to the crime?

Held: No.

CAL Observes: The First Department concluded, in a lengthy opinion, that the prosecution’s failure to disclose a report containing an eyewitness’s detailed account of the shooting constituted a material Brady violation. The report described a version of events that was inconsistent with the testimony of the prosecution’s star eyewitness. It also contained an exculpatory lead: the eyewitness heard that someone other than Mr. McGhee did the shooting.

The Court of Appeals fast-tracked this People’s appeal and then issued a brief memorandum opinion thoughtlessly regurgitating the prosecution’s SSM letter and reversing the Appellate Division. It concluded that there wasn’t even a reasonable “possibility” that disclosure of the report would have made a difference at Mr. McGhee's trial. That holding was completely inconsistent with two 2019 Brady cases (People v. Ulett and People v. Rong He), both of which held (under a more demanding prejudice standard, no less) that similar Brady information was material because it would have allowed the defense in those cases to impeach a key witness and explore an alternative defense theory.

Had the Court affirmed, Mr. McGhee, whose first trial spanned several weeks, would have joined the massive queue of criminal defendants whose trial-ready cases were delayed due to the pandemic. Concerns about efficiency and judicial resources surely animated the Court's decision, to the detriment not only of Mr. McGhee but also future defendants affected by prosecutorial misconduct and lower courts who must grapple with the Court of Appeals’s recent inconsistent Brady jurisprudence.