A defense attorney and a lawyer for the state battled last week before Maryland’s top court over whether the Constitution requires prosecutors to tell defendants about the past dishonesty of the state’s witness before a guilty plea is entered.
Assistant Maryland Public Defender Michael T. Torres told the Court of Appeals that the dishonesty must be disclosed if the witness played a “central role” in the state’s case and his or her lack of truthfulness would have “meaningfully” cast doubt on the person’s credibility if the case went to trial.
But Assistant Maryland Attorney General Carrie Williams said the state has no duty to disclose impeachment evidence regarding its witnesses prior to a defendant pleading guilty, as opposed to a trial where the defendant has preserved his or her presumption of innocence and disclosure of potentially exculpatory evidence is required.
Torres was pressing the appeal of Dale Byrd, who pleaded guilty to illegal drug possession before discovering that the state’s main witnesses against him – Baltimore police officers Daniel Hersl and Thomas Wilson — had records of lying or other misconduct. Had Byrd been told of the officers’ history, he would have withdrawn his plea and gone to trial, Torres said.
“The (prosecution’s) nondisclosure of the impeachment evidence constituted a misrepresentation that induced Mr. Byrd’s pleas,” Torres told the high court.
“Put another way, the nondisclosure exacerbated the extent to which the state’s factual proffer in support of the police misled Mr. Byrd regarding the strength of the state’s case,” Torres added. “Even if done in good faith, the state gave Mr. Byrd the false impression that officers Hersl and Wilson did not have any significant credibility problems.”
The case before Court of Appeals presented competing views on landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions on the prosecution’s duty to disclose potentially exculpatory evidence to the defense.
Torres said the justices’ 1963 decision in Brady v. Maryland that such evidence be disclosed prior to trial also requires the disclosure of impeachment evidence about the state’s witnesses before a defendant accepts a plea bargain.
But Williams cited the Supreme Court’s 2002 ruling in United States v. Ruiz, which she said indicated that Brady’s impeachment disclosure requirement is limited to trials and does not include the plea deals in which a defendant agrees to the facts presented in return for a lighter sentence.
“This was a bargain struck between Mr. Byrd and the state,” Williams said. “He received the benefit of that bargain.”
Court of Appeals Judge Jonathan Biran appeared to agree, saying Ruiz stands for the proposition that the prosecution’s disclosure requirements are greater at trial than in advance of a plea bargain.
“A defendant who pleads guilty and waives the right to a trial takes a risk that there may be some material impeachment information that they would have gotten had they gone to trial,” Biran said.
Judge Robert N. McDonald said Byrd accepted the state’s description of his involvement in the crime as true without regard to whether the officers had credibility problems in other cases.
Torres responded that the state’s description was based on the statements provided by officers whose credibility was implicitly – but erroneously — attested to in the prosecution’s proffer of facts.
“The ultimate issue is whether or not the defendant’s plea of guilty was induced by a misrepresentation” of the witnesses’ credibility, Torres said. “The overarching issue is whether he would have accepted those pleas in the first place had he known about the nondisclosed impeachment information.”
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. 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 court papers.
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.
The intermediate Court of Special Appeals rejected Byrd’s argument. In a reported 3-0 decision last year, the court said the Supreme Court’s Brady and Ruiz decisions hold that the prosecution’s duty to disclose impeaching character evidence applies to trials but not plea bargains.
Byrd then sought review by the Court of Appeals.
The court is expected to render its decision by Aug. 31 in Dale K. Byrd v. State of Maryland, No. 4 September Term 2020.