Bronx Pols Seek New Rules for Disclosing Evidence in Criminal Cases

Andy King rallies outside the Bronx courthouse with reform activists (Photo: Will Bredderman).

Andy King rallies outside the Bronx courthouse with reform activists (Photo: Will Bredderman).

Activists and elected officials rallied outside the Bronx Civil Courthouse today to demand the repeal of state laws allowing prosecutors to withhold evidence in criminal cases until trial–which criminal justice critics claim leads to a large number of false guilty pleas.

Councilman Andy King, Assemblyman Marcos Crespo and Assemblyman Luis Sepulveda–all Democrats–joined leaders of the reform group Discovery for Justice and unions 1199 SEIU and Teamsters Local 210 to call for the state to repeal and replace Article 240 of the Criminal Procedure Law. The law, as it stands, permits district attorneys to not release all evidence in their possession in the pre-trial “discovery” period unless the defense specifically files a motion for it–which many public and pro se defenders fail to do.

A bill for a new statute, Article 245, has passed the Democrat-dominated Assembly but failed in the Republican- and Independent Democratic Conference-controlled State Senate.

“This conversation here is not about the black man! It is not about the white man! It is not about the brown man! It is not about the wo-man! It is about the hu-man! We need to make sure this system is fair. We need to make sure our prosecutors and defense teams are on the same playing field. Because we need justice!” said Mr. King, co-chair of the Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus, adding that he intends to introduce a resolution in the city legislature to encourage the Senate to pass Article 245. “I’m urging the state, I’m urging the justice system, to change this law.”

Mr. Crespo–who co-sponsored the Article 245 bill in the Assembly with Mr. Sepulveda–noted that rock-ribbed Republican Texas, under the leadership of GOP Gov. Rick Perry, had already passed a law requiring full pre-trial disclosure.

“Texas already has open discovery, with a Republican governor! Where are we, the Democratic, progressive state of New York?” said Mr. Crespo, arguing that the existing law disproportionately impacts people of color. “The Assembly has passed this bill. The Senate stands in the way. And all it does is serve as a tool to continue to burden to young, black and Latino men and women and minority communities. That inequality has to stop.”

Mr. Sepulveda asserted the problem was larger than a single statute, and that the existing law is just a part of a system that encourages police and prosecutors to seek to deliver the most convictions possible, rather than convict people with accuracy

“The criminal justice system believes that the only way you measure success is by the number of criminal convictions that you have. That is the seat of our problem there,” said Mr. Sepulveda. “If you have a fair system, they consider you to be soft on crime. And that is the problem we have with the criminal justice system in this state.”

Joining the Democrats was Ramon Jimenez, a Harvard-educated attorney who has long acted as an advocate and activist in the Bronx–and who is now challenging Democratic Attorney General Eric Schneiderman on the Green Party line. Mr. Jimenez pressed the overarching racial issues even harder than his predecessors at the podium outside the courthouse.

“We stand on the steps of a building that I sometimes call ‘the house of pain.’ I call it the ‘house of pain’ because every step in the criminal justice process is prejudiced and discriminating against us. Every aspect, every aspect, whether to go to trial, plea bargaining, sentencing, parole, probation, the whole criminal justice system stinks!” Mr. Jimenez said. “Beyond this cause, we need real, dramatic change in the criminal justice system.”

Bronx Pols Seek New Rules for Disclosing Evidence in Criminal Cases