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State’s late disclosure need not be Brady violation, Md. appeals court says

The prosecution’s disclosure of potentially exculpatory evidence the day before trial does not necessarily violate the state’s constitutional obligation to share such information with the defense nor does it require the dismissal of criminal charges, Maryland’s second-highest court has ruled.

In a reported decision, the Court of Special Appeals said the constitutional mandate is fulfilled so long as the disclosure is made before trial and the defense can effectively use the information in its case. Defense counsel may request a trial postponement in light of the late-filed evidence, the court said in its 3-0 decision.

The prosecution’s just-in-time compliance with the U.S. Supreme Court’s mandate that disclosure be made before trial in its 1963 Brady v. Maryland decision does not excuse the state from potential sanctions for a discovery violation if the information was requested and not provided earlier, the court said.

The Court of Special Appeals rendered its decision last month in vacating a Baltimore County Circuit Court judge’s dismissal of theft charges against Michael Grafton because prosecutors had not disclosed to the defense until the day before trial that Grafton’s office colleague Tara Buddenbohn had confessed to the crime.

The appellate court said the prosecution’s tardy disclosure was not necessarily a violation of Brady and that that the circuit court acted too hastily in dismissing the case.

A dismissal is not in order if a brief postponement would enable the defense to make effective use of the information, the court added.

“Although that late disclosure no doubt amounted to a tactical surprise for the defense, the state’s transgression did not, in and of itself, constitute ‘suppression’ (of exculpatory evidence) under Brady,” Judge Stuart R. Berger wrote for the Court of Special Appeals.

“Rather, the critical issue was whether Grafton could make effective use of the evidence pertaining to Buddenbohn,” Berger added. “Here, the circuit court did not consider the less drastic alternative of a brief postponement before proceeding to dismiss the case.”

The Maryland Attorney General’s Office declined to comment on the court’s decision, which was a victory for the state.

Brian Zavin, who heads the Maryland public defender’s appellate division, did not immediately respond Tuesday to a request for comment on the court’s ruling and any plans to seek review by the Court of Appeals on Grafton’s behalf.

Grafton was charged by criminal information with stealing money from the accounts of 11 disabled men who lived in group homes where he worked as a facility coordinator for Mid-Atlantic Human Services Corp. Grafton, who managed the residents’ personal use funds for about three years until he was fired in 2016, allegedly removed cash from these accounts and covered up his theft by submitting phony receipts.

The day before trial, the prosecution told the defense that Buddenbohm, a benefits coordinator at Mid-Atlantic Human Services, had confessed to the company that she stole money from residents, according to the appellate court’s opinion.

Her job entailed giving Grafton the residents’ cash as requested.

Grafton’s trial attorney promptly filed a motion to dismiss the charges, alleging a Brady violation by the prosecution.

The circuit court judge granted the motion and dismissed the charges, prompting the state to seek review by the Court of Special Appeals.

In sending the case back to the circuit court, the appellate court said it was taking no position on defense counsel’s claim that the prosecution had violated discovery rules — if not Brady — and that dismissal of the charges should be the sanction.

Berger was joined in the opinion by Judges Laura S. Ripken and Alexander Wright Jr., a retired jurist sitting by special assignment.

The Court of Special Appeals rendered its decision in State of Maryland v. Michael O. Grafton, No. 1218 September Term 2021.