The Supreme Court's opportunity to formally expand Brady
TW: sexual violence, child abuse
On Aug. 26, 2022, Troy Mansfield’s attorneys filed a petition for a writ of certiorari asking the Supreme Court to decide “whether the due process right to exculpatory evidence recognized in Brady applies to pretrial plea negotiations.” Mansfield’s attorneys are requesting that the Supreme Court resolve the current circuit split on this issue by extending Brady v. Maryland protections to the plea-bargaining stage of the criminal legal system. The petition argues that withholding exculpatory evidence from a defendant before they accept a guilty plea violates the fundamental principle of our criminal legal system that innocent people should not be wrongfully convicted. While the presumption of innocence is generally deemed sacred, it is often disregarded in practice, and “innocent until proven guilty” is little more than a saying.
Mansfield was never afforded the presumption of innocence. In 1992, when he was 25 years old, Mansfield was charged with first-degree aggravated sexual assault and indecency with a child for allegedly sexually molesting a four-year-old girl in Williamson County, Texas. When Mansfield denied the accusations, the detective threatened to arrest his wife and take away his children if he did not confess. When Mansfield continued to deny the accusations, the detective proposed a deal to drop the charges. When Mansfield entertained taking the deal, the detective told him that he had just confessed. Thirteen months after his arrest, in September 1993, Mansfield took a plea deal because he was terrified of going to prison and losing his family. It was not until 2014, when he got access to the prosecution’s file in his case, that Mansfield discovered the extensive proof of his innocence withheld from him. In 2015, his attorney filed a petition for habeas corpus seeking to vacate his conviction, and the petition “outlined a series of lies the prosecution told in an attempt to extract a guilty plea from Mansfield, as well as evidence pointing to Mansfield’s innocence.” A Williamson County judge granted the petition in 2016, the court vacated Mansfield’s conviction and the prosecution ultimately dismissed the charges. In 2018, Mansfield filed a federal lawsuit against the County of Williamson arguing that the prosecutors in his case violated his civil rights by concealing exculpatory evidence. However, a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit in 2020 and the Fifth Circuit upheld the dismissal in March 2022. Now, Mansfield waits to hear if the Supreme Court will take up the case and consider the scope of Brady’s protections.
In the landmark case Brady v. Maryland, the 1963 Supreme Court held that “suppression by the prosecution of evidence favorable to an accused upon request violates due process where the evidence is material either to guilt or to punishment, irrespective of the good faith or bad faith of the prosecution.” In other words, the prosecution must turn over all exculpatory evidence to the defense upon request. However, the right to Brady evidence only formally applies at the trial stage. Trials are incredibly rare in the modern criminal legal system: 97% of federal felony convictions and 94% of state felony convictions are the results of plea bargains. Currently, only five circuit courts and five courts of last resort have held that Brady extends to the plea-bargaining stage. The Fifth Circuit, which upheld the dismissal of Mansfield’s lawsuit, is one of four circuit courts that have declined to recognize the right to Brady material at the plea-bargaining stage.
While the trial court only sentenced Mansfield to three months in jail, the media branded him a pedophile; he spent more than two decades on the sex offender registry. Prosecutorial misconduct impeded justice in Mansfield’s case, but even absent malintent, concealment of exculpatory evidence pre-trial is directly averse to the reasoning behind the Supreme Court’s decision in Brady. Mansfield has given the Supreme Court the opportunity to “help ensure the integrity of the American justice system and help promote public trust in prosecutors’ offices.”
Attorneys for Williamson County requested an extension to file a response to the petition, which the Court granted and extended to Oct. 31, 2022. Several legal scholars, current and former government officials and civil rights groups have filed amici curiae in support of extending Brady to the plea-bargaining stage. Updates can be found on SCOTUSBlog.