exculpatory evidence | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Introduction

Exculpatory evidence is evidence that tends to prove the innocence of the defendant in a criminal trial.

Exculpatory evidence is a crucial component of the criminal justice system, as it has the power to exonerate innocent defendants and prevent wrongful convictions. This type of evidence refers to any information or material that tends to establish the innocence of the accused or undermines the credibility of the prosecution’s case.

In the United States, the prosecution has a constitutional duty under the Brady v. Maryland Supreme Court case to disclose any exculpatory evidence to the defense. This means that the prosecution must provide the defense with any evidence that is favorable to the defendant and material to the outcome of the case.

Examples of exculpatory evidence may include witness statements that contradict the prosecution’s theory of the case, physical evidence that undermines the prosecution’s case, or expert testimony that challenges the credibility of the prosecution’s evidence.

Exculpatory evidence can come from a variety of sources, including police reports, forensic evidence, and witness statements. In some cases, exculpatory evidence may not be immediately apparent, and it may require a thorough investigation to uncover.

The importance of exculpatory evidence cannot be overstated. In cases where the prosecution fails to disclose exculpatory evidence, innocent defendants may be wrongfully convicted and subjected to serious consequences, such as imprisonment or even the death penalty.

Moreover, the failure to disclose such evidence is not only a violation of the defendant’s rights, but it also undermines the integrity of the criminal justice system. It is essential that prosecutors uphold their duty to disclose all evidence to ensure that defendants receive a fair trial.

In recent years, there have been high-profile cases where exculpatory evidence was not disclosed to the defense. For example, in the case of Michael Morton, a man was wrongfully convicted of murdering his wife and spent nearly 25 years in prison before DNA evidence exonerated him. It was later revealed that the prosecutor in the case had withheld evidence that would have cleared Morton of the charges.

To prevent these types of miscarriages of justice, many states have enacted laws requiring prosecutors to disclose all exculpatory evidence to the defense. In addition, defense attorneys and advocacy groups have worked to raise awareness of the importance of such evidence and to ensure that defendants receive a fair trial.

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Last Modified: 04/17/2023


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