The Right to Evidence of Innocence Before Pleading Guilty

Colin Miller - University of South Carolina School of Law
Vol. 53
November 2019
Page 271

In 2006, George Alvarez, a ninth grade, special education student, pleaded guilty to assault of a peace officer in Brownsville, Texas. Four years into his eight year sentence, Alvarez learned that the State had suppressed a video of the incident that proved his actual innocence. The video showed the officer placing Alvarez in a chokehold and a headlock while Alvarez flailed beneath him. Alvarez later brought an action under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 against the City of Brownsville, claiming the city violated the Brady doctrine by failing to disclose material exculpatory evidence. In rejecting his claim in a 2018 en banc opinion, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit concluded that “case law from the Supreme Court, this circuit, and other circuits does not affirmatively establish that a constitutional violation occurs when Brady material is not shared during the plea bargaining process.” Given that around 95% of convictions are secured through guilty pleas, such an interpretation of Brady means that few defendants are entitled to evidence of their innocence before being convicted.

This Article argues, however, that these courts are ignoring a largely forgotten Supreme Court opinion that was central to the creation of the Brady doctrine. In its 1960 opinion in Wilde v. Wyoming, the Supreme Court recognized that the suppression of favorable substantive evidence before a defendant’s guilty plea can violate the Due Process Clause. Three years later, the Supreme Court stated that its opinion in Brady v. Maryland was merely an extension of its prior opinions such as Wilde. And yet, while each of the other opinions that formed the foundation for the Brady doctrine has had a lasting legacy, the Wilde opinion has been lost to time despite never being repudiated. This Article calls for a resurrection of the Wilde opinion and the recognition of a right to evidence of innocence before pleading guilty.

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