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Brady disclosure does not apply to guilty pleas, Md. court says

Maryland prosecutors need not tell defendants about the past dishonesty of the state’s witnesses before a guilty plea is entered, Maryland’s second-highest court has ruled in upholding the drug possession conviction of a man whose main accuser had a record of lying and would later be convicted of police corruption.

The Court of Special Appeals held last week that the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1963 Brady v. Maryland decision requiring prosecutors to share impeaching character evidence about their witnesses with the defense before trial does not apply to guilty pleas.

The Maryland court cited the justices’ 2002 decision in United States v. Ruiz, which indicated that Brady’s impeachment disclosure requirement is limited to trials.

In its reported 3-0 decision, the Court of Special Appeals rejected Dale Byrd’s argument through counsel that prosecutors were obligated to tell him before his two guilty pleas that the officers who claimed to have seen him exchanging heroin for money – Daniel Hersl and Thomas Wilson – had been found by the Baltimore Police Department’s internal investigators to have made false statements in other instances.

“There is no indication that the prosecutor in this case knew, prior to the guilty pleas, that Wilson or Hersl had been dishonest in the past,” wrote retired Court of Special Appeals Judge James P. Salmon, who was sitting by special assignment. “And, even if the prosecutor knew that on some occasion(s) they had committed one or more dishonest acts (not involving the subject case), the prosecutor indisputably would have no duty prior to the guilty pleas to tell Byrd or his attorney what he knew.”

Byrd’s appellate counsel, Assistant Maryland Public Defender Michael T. Torres, said Thursday that his office is reviewing the ruling and no decision has yet been made regarding an appeal.

The Maryland Attorney General’s Office declined to comment.

Byrd pleaded guilty on March 11, 2011, to possession of heroin with intent to distribute in two separate cases. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison, with all but four years suspended, and three years’ probation.

Byrd’s plea, in Baltimore City Circuit Court, followed the prosecution’s proffer that police officers had seen him exchanging money for drugs on the porch of a vacant Baltimore house in March 2010 and then again five months later.

Hersl, who swore out the statement of charges against Byrd, was a witness to the first incident, while Wilson was a witness to the second.

Hersl was later convicted of racketeering and robbery for his actions while part of the Baltimore Police Department’s disgraced Gun Trace Task Force. Wilson was later found to have committed misconduct, according to a Baltimore Sun article cited in the Court of Special Appeals’ decision.

On appeal, Byrd said he would not have pleaded guilty if the prosecution had disclosed the checkered pasts of the state’s police witnesses and not let their incriminating statements stand.

But the Court of Special Appeals said that, “because the prosecutor had no duty to divulge such impeaching evidence, there is no basis for the contention that the prosecutor ‘implicitly’ vouched for the honesty of either Wilson or Hersl.”

Salmon was joined in the opinion by Judges Alexander Wright Jr. and Melanie Shaw Geter.

The Court of Special Appeals rendered its decision in Dale K. Byrd v. State of Maryland, No. 682, September Term 2018.

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