You might think that when you are forced to choose between contesting the allegations leveled against you by prosecutors through a trial or pleading guilty and accepting the court’s punishment, you will have access to all of the evidence to be used against you, such as witness statements and police reports. In New York you would be in for a big surprise: You do not.
Does that sound unfair? New York’s Blindfold Law — a set of rules that stacks the deck in favor of prosecutors — leaves the accused and their counsel fumbling around in the dark.
As someone who has dedicated his life and career to racial and social justice, I am aware of how the Blindfold Law perpetuates inequality and unfairness — particularly for people of color. A ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court requires prosecutors to provide the defense with access to discovery — the substantive evidence in their possession. But there is a catch: they do not have to do so in a timely fashion. That means that people accused of crimes — who, because of historic racial and social inequities, are disproportionately people of color — often take pleas or go to trial with none of the discovery in their possession.
For years, advocates have pushed for more open discovery. Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the State Legislature have proposed legislation to right this injustice.
With discovery in hand early on, those accused of crimes and their defense attorneys would know immediately what evidence prosecutors have, which would help to prevent wrongful convictions. Ready access to discovery would also relieve some of the immense pressure the accused often feel to plead guilty rather than go to trial. When it comes to progressivism and racial justice, we New Yorkers like to think of ourselves as a beacon of hope. But, only three other states in the country have worse discovery procedures than New York. It is time for state leaders to work — in service of their constituents and alongside advocates — to end the Blindfold Law and consign it to the dustbin of State statutory history where it belongs.
Vincent M. Southerland is executive director of the Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law at New York University School of Law.