The People v. John Guica
Issue: Whether the prosecution violated its Brady obligations by failing to disclose favorable impeachment evidence concerning the jailhouse informant’s pending burglary conviction and through its failure to correct false or misleading testimony provided by the witness at trial.
Held: While the evidence should have been disclosed, there was no reasonable possibility of a different outcome.
Factual Background: In this high profile murder case, the prosecution called several of the defendant’s friends to testify that he had made a series of incriminating statements about the murder. He said that he had provided the gun and disposed of the weapon. The prosecution also called a jailhouse informant, JA, who presented a different version of Giuca’s participation-- that he confessed to taking part in the robbery and shooting that resulted in the victim’s death.
JA had pleaded guilty to burglary and received a drug treatment program. At trial he claimed he was doing “good” in the program, had suffered a single relapse, and denied that any favorable treatment had resulted from his testimony against Giuca.
Defense counsel was able to elicit that JA was a career criminal and that he had violated the terms of his plea but was given multiple chances at drug treatment, including after he absconded from the program. On re-direct, the prosecution elicited that a prosecutor and counselor had spoken with the judge at the appearance following JA’s absconding, but the prosecutor did not reveal that she personally had spoken to the judge that day. The prosecution denied there was any specific promise of consideration for JA’s testimony.
In a subsequent 440, JA affirmed that there was an agreement between himself and the prosecution. The defense also alleged that the prosecution had violated Brady by not identifying herself as the person who had intervened on JA’s behalf after he absconded from the program and by not correcting his misleading testimony that he had done well in the program. The trial prosecutor testified that there was no formal agreement with JA concerning his testimony. Ultimately JA received the maximum sentence under his plea deal as a result of his failure to complete the program. The 440 court denied the motion, refusing to credit JA and found there was no reasonable possibility that the information about the prosecutor’s personal intervention or correcting JA’s testimony about his success in the program would have changed the outcome.
The Appellate Division reversed finding the prosecution violated Brady by failing to disclose the prosecutor’s personal appearance on JA’s behalf, and to correct JA’s misrepresentations about his progress in the program being “good.”
The Court of Appeals reversed and reinstated the conviction, finding that the 440 court properly ruled there was not reasonable possibility the disclosures would have changed the outcome. Justice DiFiore, writing for the majority, went on to observe that “a witness’s wholly subjective hope of favorable treatment, in the absence of any objective circumstances that reasonably substantiate the witness’s expectation cannot unilaterally form the basis of a tacit understanding,” While the majority recognized that the undisclosed evidence would have allowed the defense to deepen its argument that JA was testifying falsely, it found that the impeachment evidence was largely cumulative and therefore there was no reasonable possibility of a different outcome. The defense had made the jury aware that JA continued to be released despite violating the terms of his drug treatment program. While the prosecutor should have clarified the record concerning the prosecutor’s role in intervening on JA’s behalf, these lapses did not warrant reversal.
Rivera in dissent rejected the majority’s finding that the suppressed evidence was cumulative because the jury did not learn the extent of the prosecutor’s ongoing intervention on JA’s behalf. The suppressed information would have provided the defense with critical information to dispute JA’s motives in testifying. These were particularly egregious violations of the prosecutor’s ethical standards.
CAL Observes: Once again, the prosecution gets away with Brady murder. Where egregious violations of ethical standards can be hidden behind the materiality standards, it only encourages prosecutors to suppress exculpatory evidence. At the very least the Court of Appeals forgiveness does not encourage prosecutor’s to carefully consider their ethical obligations and err on the side of disclosure. Also, the Vilardi “reasonable possibility” standard is supposed to be the least forgiving of the Brady standards rendering suppression rarely if ever excusable.
Looking for some brightness in this dark decision, the Court reaffirmed that negligent as well as deliberate disclosure can deny due process, citing People v.Simmons, 36 N.Y.2d 126 (1975). Also, practically speaking, the jury probably did know that the jailhouse informant was not testifying out of the goodness of his heart in light of his criminal history. But the willingness to excuse the prosecution’s misconduct here is, shall we say, disappointing.