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Public defender: Discovery violation in Goodson case ‘a daily occurrence’

Attorney Andrew Graham is seen here asking judge Williams to dismiss the case against his client Officer Caesar Goodson due to the prosecution withholding exculpatory evidence. (Courtroom sketch By Maximilian Franz / The Daily Record)

Andrew Jay Graham stands as he asks Baltimore City Circuit Judge Barry Williams to dismiss the case against his client, Officer Caesar Goodson, due to prosecutors withholding exculpatory evidence. Williams denied the motion but admonished prosecutors for the discovery violation.

The discovery violation that earned prosecutors a public rebuke Thursday in the case against the driver of the police van that transported Freddie Gray was nothing out of the ordinary, according to defense attorneys.

Attorneys constantly receive information at the last minute or mid-trial which is potentially exculpatory for their client and “flies completely in the face of discovery rules,” said Deputy Public Defender Natalie Finegar.

“These types of discovery violations are a daily occurrence in our practice in Baltimore city,” she said.

Lawyers for Officer Caesar Goodson argued Thursday their client’s indictment should be dismissed after they learned of potentially exculpatory information on the eve of the trial. The defense was told Donta Allen, who was in the van with Gray in April 2015, had spoken with prosecutors after his initial interview with police and reiterated his belief that Gray was banging his head against the side of the van.

The second statement, which supports the defense theory that Gray had not received a paralyzing neck injury when the medical examiner said he did but rather was hurt accidentally between the van’s last two stops, was never disclosed.

The Maryland Rules require the state’s attorney to provide “all material or information… that tends to exculpate the defendant” without a request from the defense.

“We’ve run up against frequent misunderstandings about what needs to be turned over,” said Deborah Levi, an assistant public defender who observed Thursday’s proceedings. “This is not a one-time incident.”

‘Frustrated’ judge

Baltimore City Circuit Judge Barry Williams forcefully chastised prosecutors for not only failing to disclose the statement but for failing to understand the underlying rules.

“You’re supposed to turn everything over that’s exculpatory,” Williams said. “I’m not saying that you did anything nefarious, I’m saying you don’t understand what exculpatory means.”

Chief Deputy State’s Attorney Michael Schatzow argued Allen’s initial statement, given to police on the day of Gray’s injuries, was substantively the same as the one he gave later in the meeting with prosecutors and his defense attorney.

“We have a duty to provide exculpatory information to the defendant,” Schatzow said. “We don’t have a duty to provide exculpatory information that’s already been provided.”

But Williams said the circumstances of the second statement, which was given outside of police custody and in his attorney’s office, must be considered as well what was said.

“That’s classic exculpatory information and if you don’t get that and if your office doesn’t get that, I don’t know where we are,” he said.

Williams gave prosecutors until Friday to ask every attorney and investigator if they had any potentially exculpatory information to turn over for any of the remaining cases.

“I will hold you personally accountable for any discovery violations,” Williams told Schatzow, noting it was the third discovery violation committed by the state in the officers’ trials.

Former city prosecutor Warren S. Alperstein said Williams appeared “frustrated” with the state’s inability to recognize that Allen’s second statement was exculpatory.

“It is so rare for a judge to call out an entire prosecutor’s office,” said Alperstein, of Alperstein & Diener P.A. in Baltimore.

The state’s position raises serious concerns about the office’s practices, Alperstein added.

“What’s so disturbing about this is now wondering how many defendants have been convicted as a result of discovery violations?” he said.

Finegar, the public defender, said it’s incredibly difficult to seek a new trial if exculpatory information is disclosed after a conviction because the defense must prove knowledge of the information would have affected the outcome of the trial.

“The problem is that we might not be able to show how fully we might have been able to develop it years later,” she said.

Opening statements

After declining to dismiss the indictment as requested by the defense, Williams heard opening statements in Goodson’s case.

Goodson faces the most serious charge of any officer – second-degree, depraved-heart murder – in addition to involuntary manslaughter, negligent manslaughter by vehicle, criminally negligent manslaughter by vehicle, second-degree assault, reckless endangerment and misconduct in office.

Prosecutors accused Goodson of giving Gray a “rough ride.”

“He deliberately ignored his duty to keep Mr. Gray safe,” Schatzow said, referring to Goodson’s failure to secure Gray with a seatbelt in the van and take him to the hospital when medical attention was requested.

Defense attorney Andrew Jay Graham, of Kramon & Graham P.A. in Baltimore, said Goodson is a “good officer” and “good human being” who was doing his job and following the orders of superiors.

Prosecutors put their first few witnesses on the stand Thursday and are scheduled to resume presenting their case Friday morning.