Prosecutorial misconduct in DE renders guilty plea unconstitutional
When a defendant pleads guilty, he must do so “knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily.” Whether those requirements are undermined when prosecutors withhold information concerning the credibility of a key witness was explored in a recent decision by Judge Richard Stokes of the Superior Court of Delaware.
On February 19, 2016, Michael Coverdale came to court on heroin-related criminal charges. During the February 19 hearing, Coverdale’s attorney informed the court that the State had just disclosed that the its forensic chemist, Dr. Bipin Mody, had resigned. Defense counsel said that he understood that Mody “was actually suspended pending discipline up to termination,” and suggested that what little he knew about the situation “affects the integrity of the information” — the testing of the heroin — “that substantially affects this case.”
The prosecutor dismissed Coverdale’s attorney’s suggestion and asserted that Mody’s departure was unrelated to any wrongdoing. “There is no Bradyinformation that the State is aware of,” the prosecutor assured Coverdale and the court, rerferring to Brady v. Maryland—a US Supreme Court case that requires prosecutors to provide information to the defense when it is material and exculpatory.
Three days later, the prosecutor again dismissed concerns about why Mody’s employment ended. “Your Honor, I did check with Wilmington and the only issue is his turnaround time on case work. There’s nothing else.”
Up against a plea deadline, Coverdale agreed to plead guilty.
Only after Coverdale pled guilty, the truth about Mody — and what prosecutors knew yet withheld from Coverdale — emerged.
Contrary to the prosecutor’s earlier claims, Mody didn’t lose his job because of “laziness.” Instead, what the prosecutor knew — and withheld — was that Mody “was subject to disciplinary actions because he … did not follow correct testing procedures; undertook multiple practices which, in a variety of ways, undermined the chain of custody; and/or was untruthful with regard to his … testing procedures.”
According to Judge Stokes, issues known by the Delaware Department of Justice regarding Dr. Mody included: he did not always rerun drug samples after being told to do so; some cases had to be retested because he was not following the proper testing procedures; he was not always candid when confronted about his errors and omissions; he sometimes entered incorrect lot numbers for reagents; cases were returned to him because he had not entered the correct information on his reports; and he did not follow proper procedures when doing his proficiency tests.
Judge Stokes found that these “affirmative prosecutorial misrepresentation[s] … caused the defendant to enter the plea under a misapprehension or mistake as to his legal rights.” Notwithstanding the uphill legal battle defendants often face when asserting that prosecutors withheld Brady information before entering a guilty plea, Judge Stokes found the conduct in Coverdale’s case crossed the line.
“In this case, the prosecutor’s misrepresentation and concealment of the Bradymaterial was serious; i.e., it was a grave misrepresentation which constituted grave prosecutorial misconduct. Furthermore, the misrepresentation impacted the integrity of the plea process and the justice system in turn.”
Judge Stokes concluded that Coverdale “entered a plea bargain that he otherwise would not have entered,” and vacated his convictions.