The People v. Derrick Ulett
Issue before the Court: Whether a surveillance video capturing the scene of a shooting was material such that the prosecution’s failure to disclose it constituted a Brady violation. The video depicted a central eyewitness at trial, the victim, a possible third party, and potential other witnesses. The prosecution had reviewed the video pre-trial but had not turned over the evidence to the defense, then suggested to the jury that no such video existed.
Held: In an opinion authored by Judge Garcia, the Court held that this violated Brady and that Mr. Ulett had not received a fair trial. Accordingly, it vacated the conviction, which had been challenged by way of a C.P.L. § 440.10 motion, followed by a hearing at which trial counsel asserted she would have used the video to impeach the main eyewitness, to pursue a third-party culpability theory, and to identify other witnesses.
CAL Observes: This was rare unanimous ruling for the defense. Animating that finding (and distinguishing this case from People v. Guica, also decided this month), might have been the outrageous conduct of the prosecution, which actively misled the jury about the nonexistence of video surveillance. Similarly, the prosecution’s suppression of the evidence precluded the defense from pursuing several important avenues. On the other hand, the facts were fairly unremarkable, and the Court characterized the evidence against Mr. Ulett as “substantial.” The 440 court had found that the third-party theory was speculative and the defense view of the video unreasonable; while the video was useful for impeachment, the 440 court continued, its value for that purpose would not have changed the outcome of the trial. The Court of Appeals disagreed on materiality, reversing Ulett’s conviction even under the less exacting “reasonable probability” standard that governs where the defense makes no specific request for the material.