In 1958, a Maryland man named John Brady was arrested and charged with murder in the killing of Williams Brooks. Brady maintained he didn’t kill Brooks, but he had helped another man, Charles Boblit, steal Brooks’ car for a planned bank heist. Boblit actually confessed to the murder. He told the authorities that killing Brooks was all his doing and Brady didn’t help with the slaying, nor did Brady assist in planning the murder. Prosecutors knew this, but they didn’t tell Brady’s lawyers, and he was convicted of first-degree murder. Brady’s lawyer spent the next five years appealing the verdict. In 1963, the Supreme Court decided 7-2 that the prosecution denied Brady due process when they didn’t tell his lawyers about the confession.

The landmark decision in Brady v. Maryland required prosecutors for the last 59 years to disclose exculpatory evidence, or information which might assist the defendant in being found not guilty or reducing the sentence of those convicted in a crime. Courts call this exchange of evidence a “Brady disclosure,” after the Maryland man who fought for this right.

In the 59 years since Brady v. Maryland, prosecutors have continued to fail to hand over exculpatory evidence. The problem is so bad in New York, for example, that state lawmakers had to pass legislation setting a deadline for handing over evidence to the defense. On September 14, the courts were again reminded of why Brady matters. 

After 23 years, a hit podcast, and a cavalcade of calls demanding his release, Adnan Syed got a court hearing on Monday, September 19, to determine whether he should be set free. Syed was accused and convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee in 1999. Her body was discovered in Leakin Park in Baltimore. 

Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marylin Mosby made the request on September 14 to vacate his conviction, claiming evidence that might have proven his innocence was not provided to his defense attorneys.

“The State’s Brady violations robbed the Defendant of information that would have bolstered his investigation and argument that someone else was responsible for the victim’s death,” wrote Becky Feldman, chief of the state’s attorney’s office’s Sentencing Review Unit, in the motion. 

Mosby, who is in court facing her own criminal charges for allegedly falsifying mortgage documents and illegally taking money from her state retirement account, is in her last few months in office. Her move to vacate the prosecution of Syed months before she leaves has been viewed with a heavy dose of cynicism. It was seen as good optics for a person facing the embarrassment of a criminal trial and still licking her wounds from a political defeat, especially given her actions related to another Maryland man, Keith Davis Jr., who has been tried for murder by prosecutors who have failed to disclose information the defense could use at trial.

In Davis’ second trial, the state’s attorney’s office failed to tell the jury, the defense, or the judge the complete background of a jailhouse informant used by the prosecution. The jury hung on the charges and the judge declared a mistrial.

Keith Davis Jr. won’t be back in court until 2023, the 60th anniversary of Brady. A new prosecutor will be in office. Hopefully, the Supreme Court and fairness guide the office, not just optics.  

— J. Brian Charles 

J. Brian Charles was Deputy Editor of Baltimore Beat. Previously, he was a staffer at The Trace, The Hill, Chalkbeat, Governing, and Orange County Register. His work has appeared in Slate, Vox, Wired,...