The Role of Exculpatory Evidence in Criminal Defense

In a criminal prosecution, the state bears the burden of proving the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. To do that, the prosecution must present evidence that proves each element of the offense. The defendant is not required to prove anything in a criminal prosecution; although, a defendant may choose to present evidence and testimony in his/her defense. What many defendants do not know is that the State also has a constitutional duty of due process to disclose material evidence favorable to a defendant. Whether uncovered by the prosecution or the defense, this evidence is referred to as “exculpatory” evidence.

What Is Exculpatory Evidence?

In a criminal prosecution, evidence presented by the prosecution to support the defendant’s guilt is referred to as “inculpatory” evidence. Conversely, “exculpatory” evidence is any evidence, whether uncovered by the prosecution or the defense, used to support the innocence of a defendant on trial.

What Are Some Common Examples of Exculpatory Evidence?

Exculpatory evidence can come in various forms, including tangible physical evidence, documentary evidence, and testimonial evidence. To help you understand what constitutes exculpatory evidence, consider some common examples:

  • Alibi evidence. Evidence proving that you were somewhere else at the time in question and, therefore, could not have committed the crime.
  • Eyewitness testimony. This refers to a person who can testify that they witnessed the crime, and you are not the person who committed the crime.
  • Video evidence. Video evidence may show the crime in progress and rule you out as the suspect.
  • DNA evidence. When DNA (or other forensic evidence) collected from a crime scene fails to match the defendant’s DNA, it provides evidence of the defendant’s innocence.

Is Exculpatory Evidence Necessary for My Defense?

While the existence of exculpatory evidence is always welcome, a defendant does not need to provide such evidence to avoid a conviction. Under the laws of the United States judicial system, the State bears the burden of proving a defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. A defendant is not required to prove his/her innocence. Furthermore, if a defendant is found not guilty at trial, that finding is not equivalent to finding the defendant innocent. A “not guilty” verdict only means that the prosecution failed to meet its burden. If exculpatory evidence is admitted at trial, that evidence may serve to prove a defendant’s actual innocence; however, proving your innocence is not required to avoid being convicted of the charges against you.

Is the State Required to Turn Over Exculpatory Evidence to the Defendant?

In a criminal prosecution, the State (via various law enforcement agencies) conducts the initial investigation that leads to an arrest and the filing of charges against a suspect. During the course of that investigation, the State may uncover exculpatory evidence. If that happens, the prosecutor is required to turn that evidence over to the defendant. For example, if the prosecutor interviews a witness who is certain the defendant did not commit the crime, the prosecutor must disclose the existence of the witness to the defendant.

What Happens If the State Fails to Disclose Exculpatory Evidence?

If the State fails to disclose exculpatory evidence, a “Brady violation” occurs. Named after the case that established the rule, a Brady violation requires the following three components:

  1. The evidence at issue must be favorable to the accused, either because it is exculpatory, or because it is impeaching.
  2. The evidence must have been suppressed by the State, either willfully or inadvertently.
  3. Prejudice must have ensued.

If the court agrees that a Brady violation occurred, it can lead to the charges being dismissed, a mistrial, or even a reversal of a conviction. The prosecutor can even be charged with prosecutorial misconduct for committing a Brady violation.

What Should I Do If I Am Facing Criminal Charges in Las Vegas?

If you were arrested and charged with committing a criminal offense in Las Vegas, consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney at The Vegas Lawyers as soon as possible to discuss your legal options and defenses. Call us at 702-707-7000 or contact us online.