The first two questions usually asked by a defendant are: "What did I do? What evidence does the prosecution have?" The process by which a defense attorney obtains the evidence is called "discovery." Discovery is the opportunity for the defendant to find out what kind of case the prosecution will present against the defendant.
During the pre-trial stage of a case, discovery is undertaken by both the defense attorney and prosecuting attorney. Both sides are required to discuss their case. There are not supposed to be surprises at trial. Legal dramas on television and movies are not representative of a majority of real cases.
Discovery is done informally, at first. Sometimes the Judge presiding over the case will have to be involved to handle disputes. Common disputes arise when a defense attorney has reason to believe that the prosecution has not handed over particular evidence. The prosecution must turn over certain evidence, such as:
- witness names and the content of their testimony
- "real evidence," or physical evidence
- evidence that is favorable to the defendant, i.e. "exculpatory"
- felony history of any witnesses for purposes of impeachment
- any "relevant" recorded or written statements
Certain legal principles are supposed to protect a defendant as well. For example, "Brady" violations occur when a prosecutor intentionally withholds exculpatory evidence. Recently, the United States Chief Judge of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, Alex Kozinski, criticized California state judges for allowing prosecutorial misconduct. He said that there is an "epidemic of Brady violations..."
Regardless of misconduct or not, it is important for defendants to be aware of their rights. Discovery is important to a case. Sometimes it will lead to a defense verdict. Other times it can help facilitate a favorable plea deal. If you have been charged with a crime, it is important to consult with an attorney. Evidence and its impact on your case can be discussed.