Prosecutors in Hays County, Texas provided exculpatory evidence to the defense, as required by law, on the fourth day of the defendant’s murder trial. While this resulted in the defendant’s acquittal, it raised questions regarding the delay in providing the evidence, which showed that the defendant’s actions did not meet the legal standard for murder. Regardless of prosecutors’ reasons for the delay, they appear to have fulfilled their duty under the Fourteenth Amendment and U.S. Supreme Court precedent, which leave a great deal of discretion to the state to determine what evidence to produce and when to produce it.
Brelyn Sorrells was charged with murder in connection with the stabbing death of Arthur Martinez at a party in San Marcos in the early hours of February 3, 2013. Police conducted numerous witness interviews, many of which conflicted with one another, and arrested Sorrells on February 6. Prosecutors alleged that Sorrells stabbed Martinez after a fight broke out at the party.
Texas law defines the offense of murder, in part, as “intentionally or knowingly caus[ing] the death of an individual.” Tex. Pen. Code § 19.02(b)(1). Murder is typically a first-degree felony, which can result in imprisonment of five to 99 years, or life imprisonment, as well as a fine of up to $10,000. Tex. Pen. Code § 12.32. To convict Sorrells of murder, the state essentially had to prove that he stabbed Martinez with the intention of killing him. To defend against this charge, Sorrells had to challenge the state’s evidence of intent. The state, as it turned out, had evidence that supported Sorrells’ claim, but it had not produced it to the defense yet.
On the fourth day of trial, prosecutors provided Sorrells’ defense team with a cell phone video shot by a DJ at the party. The state had been in possession of the video for about 15 months at that point but claimed that it did not review it initially because the time-stamp suggested the video was captured after the stabbing. Prosecutors also claimed that they gave a copy of the video to Sorrells’ attorney more than a year earlier, which the attorney denied.
The video shows Sorrells backed up against a wall, surrounded by multiple armed individuals who were attacking him. Sorrells fell to the floor, where several people continued to beat him. Martinez was stabbed at about this time. Prosecutors reportedly told Sorrells’ attorney that the video “didn’t make Sorrells look good,” but jurors later stated that it was a significant factor in their decision to acquit Sorrells.
The Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause requires prosecutors to disclose potentially exculpatory evidence to the defense, whether or not the defense requests it. This is commonly called “Brady evidence,” after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brady v. Maryland, which held that exculpatory evidence must be disclosed when it “is material either to guilt or to punishment.” 373 U.S. 83, 87 (1963). This includes potentially exculpatory evidence and evidence that could be used to impeach a state’s witness. Failure by the state to produce such evidence violates a defendant’s due process rights, regardless of whether it was intentional or not. What Brady lacks, unfortunately, are clear guidelines for what constitutes “material” evidence, and when the state must make it available to the defense.
Board-certified criminal defense attorney Michael J. Brown has spent more than 20 years fighting for the rights of west Texas defendants in state and federal criminal cases. To schedule a confidential consultation to discuss your case, please contact us today online or at (432) 687-5157.
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Photo credit: By National Archives of the United States () [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.