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The decision to provide discovery: an examination of policies and guilty pleas

Abstract

Objectives

Prosecutors’ decisions to provide discovery can have vast implications for defendants. When prosecutors do not provide exculpatory information in the context of trials, they place innocent defendants at risk for wrongful convictions (Brady v. Maryland, 1963). Open-file discovery policy, in which prosecutors broadly share evidence with the defense, is the leading reform to address the withholding of exculpatory evidence. A US Supreme Court decision, however, ruled prosecutors do not have to turn over one form of exculpatory evidence (i.e., impeachment evidence) in the context of guilty pleas (U.S. v. Ruiz, 2002). The present study investigated the impact of two discovery policies (open-file (OF) and the Ruiz Supreme Court decision (SC)) on mock prosecutor behaviors and decisions.

Methods

Participants playing the role of prosecutor were randomly assigned to one of four conditions (neither OF or SC, only OF, only SC, both OF and SC) and assembled a case against a defendant. In assembling the case, participants turned over discovery to the defense and had the opportunity to withhold four potentially exculpatory items.

Results

Results revealed both discovery policies impacted mock prosecutor behavior: Participants in the OF conditions turned over significantly more discovery and significantly more exculpatory items than those not in the OF conditions. Conversely, participants in the SC conditions turned over significantly less discovery and significantly fewer exculpatory items than those not in the SC conditions, regardless of their decision to offer a plea or go to trial.

Conclusions

Our findings provide important empirical data for two prominent but nonetheless controversial, discovery policies.

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Correspondence to Samantha Luna.

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Luna, S., Redlich, A.D. The decision to provide discovery: an examination of policies and guilty pleas. J Exp Criminol (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11292-019-09403-z

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Keywords

  • Legal decision-making
  • Discovery
  • Exculpatory
  • Guilty pleas
  • Open-file