By Melissa Mark-Viverito and Seymour W. James Jr.
In September 2016, Aaron Cedres was arrested for gang assault, accused of beating a patron outside a Bronx nightclub he worked at as a bouncer. Surveillance video supposedly captured the assault, and when the case was presented to the grand jury, defense lawyers asked to see the video. The Bronx district attorney refused.
The defense again attempted to access this video through the discovery process, but the district attorney’s office repeatedly delayed. Finally, the district attorney alleged the video was corrupted beyond repair, but when the defense made a motion to dismiss based on this issue, the video was finally turned over to the defense. It clearly exculpated Aaron. The case was dismissed.
But in the meantime — a span of almost two years — Aaron lost his job and his apartment. His family abandoned him, insisting that he was guilty, and he was forced to move to a family shelter with his girlfriend and newborn daughter. If his attorneys had gained immediate access to this video, all of this could have been avoided, but because of New York’s restrictive discovery laws, this is an all-too-common scenario in courtrooms across the state.
New York is one of the 10 states with the most restrictive discovery laws in the nation. States like Texas and North Carolina have recently enacted comprehensive reforms, while our state continues to operate with antiquated laws that restrict the defense from viewing police reports, grand jury minutes, witness statements and other evidence.
Our “Blindfold Law” does not require district attorneys to disclose any of this crucial information until the day a trial begins. A person charged with a crime in New York does not have a right to learn who is accusing them.
In civil cases when money is at stake, lawyers in New York get complete discovery of their opponent’s case and can even depose witnesses. However, in criminal cases where a person’s most fundamental rights are at stake, none of these rules apply. This is backward and wrong.
Disclosure of this information is essential for meaningful investigations and informed decision-making, as every other state that has reformed its discovery rules has recognized.
Why, then, has New York stalled in its attempts to reform this broken system?
Reform opponents contend that broad discovery would jeopardize witnesses or reporting of crimes, but Texas’ discovery reforms have done nothing to hinder its criminal prosecutions.
In fact, broad discovery has been proven to work nationwide, including in large cities such as Los Angeles, Houston, Boston, Miami, Chicago, Newark, N.J., Detroit and others.
Indeed, if there were legitimate issues with rampant problems jeopardizing witnesses or reporting crimes, those jurisdictions with broader discovery laws would long since have reformed them.
In actuality, these laws have been on the books for decades and have been replicated in cities and counties throughout the country.
Discovery reform is not only good policy, it is also fiscally responsible. Discovery reform has proved to clear court backlogs and reduce pretrial incarceration rates. It eliminates pointless paperwork that currently bogs down the system.
Assemblyman Joseph Lentol, D-Brooklyn, recently introduced a package of reforms that has widespread support and would restore some fairness to a system that has been historically imbalanced. Our state needs uniform discovery laws, as an accused’s chance at a fair shot should not depend on the county in which they are charged.
From the right to be innocent until proven guilty to the right to a defense attorney, our country affords those accused of crimes with numerous fundamental rights. Our state’s Blindfold Law flies in the face of these values. It’s time Albany lawmakers reform an antiquated and broken discovery system