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What Does Exculpatory Evidence Mean – A Law Enforcement Guide

What Does Exculpatory Evidence Mean – A Law Enforcement Guide


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When a person is charged with a crime, they are thought to be innocent until the prosecution provides enough evidence to determine their guilt beyond a shadow of a doubt. Eye witness testimony and physical evidence must be verified and analyzed before it can be entered into the court’s file. There are two types of evidence: exculpatory and inculpatory. Both types of evidence can be introduced into the proceedings. In some cases, the discovery process may be used to ensure both the prosecution and the defense have inventoried all of the evidence they have at their disposal.

Definition of Exculpatory Evidence

There are two types of evidence that are used in a court of law. Understanding what each type of evidence is capable of is important. A district attorney may decide to take their evidence to a grand jury to determine whether or not they have what they need to file charges against a suspect for a specific crime.

  • Exculpatory evidenceExculpatory evidence is anything that can be used to exonerate a defendant and prove their innocence.
  • Inculpatory evidence – Inculpatory evidence is anything that will prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a shadow of a doubt.
  • Responsibilities – In order for a defendant to have a fair trial, the prosecutor must share all of the evidence they have in their possession. This includes both inculpatory and exculpatory forms of evidence. If a prosecutor does not turn over all of the evidence they have, criminal charges may be filed against them.
  • Limits – There are certain limits as to what may be considered exculpatory evidence.

The Brady Principle ensures that each criminal defendant receives a fair trial. Known as a “rule of fairness”, it is now used to ensure all prosecutors turn over all of the evidence they have, including exculpatory evidence. If any amount of evidence is withheld, the prosecutor will be charged with a Brady violation. The Supreme Court of the United States declared that withholding evidence is a criminal offense and will be tried as such.

Why is Exculpatory Evidence Relevant?

Exculpatory evidence that proves a defendant’s innocence will prevent them from being convicted of a crime they didn’t commit. A prosecuting attorney has a legal responsibility to provide all of the evidence they have at their disposal to defense attorneys. If this isn’t done, a miscarriage of justice may occur and an innocent man may go to prison. Exculpatory evidence, no matter how insignificant, may be just what is needed to cast doubt on a defendant’s guilt.


The prosecution team is responsible for building a case against a criminal defendant. In building their case, they may come across evidence that indicates the defendant is not guilty of the crime. Since it is their job to prove guilt, they are looking for evidence that proves their case. In an effort to maintain a fair trial, the prosecutor must provide any evidence they obtain to the defense team so that they can use it to defend their client. This includes any form of DNA evidence, testimony, or exculpatory information that may be collected.


A defense attorney must use all reasonable efforts to defend their client. While a prosecuting attorney is forced to turn over exculpatory evidence, the defense attorney is not bound by the same obligation. They can retain any inculpatory evidence. Because our criminal justice system is founded on the principle that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty, all that is needed is to cast a shadow of a doubt on the prosecutor’s case.

Are There Different Types of Exculpatory Evidence?

There are many types of exculpatory evidence that can be used by a defense attorney to prove the innocence of their client. Some forms of evidence are more valuable than others, but will still be valuable if they can cast doubt on a prosecutor’s case. Not all of the evidence a defense attorney receives should be used. For example, if a piece of evidence opens the door to an incriminating line of questioning, a defense attorney may not use it unless the prosecutor breaches that line first. The judge may dismiss the evidence as prejudicial or argumentative, depending on the situation.

Witness Statements That Are Inconsistent

Inconsistent statements made by witnesses can cast doubt on their credibility. When someone is constantly changing their story, it is a good indication that they either don’t remember what happened or that they may bear some criminal responsibility in the case. If a witness’s statement during court doesn’t match with the statement they provided in the police report, it can call into question the prosecution’s entire case.

Witness Tampering

Witness tampering is one way that exculpatory information can be lost or altered so that it no longer seems relevant. If payment is offered to a witness to secure their testimony, it is considered to be witness tampering. This is a criminal offense and can lead to charges of perjury if it can be proven that a witness lied or was dishonest while under oath. If the witness is offered a reduced sentence for their testimony, it isn’t considered as payment, but the prosecutor must be very careful in how they broker the deal. If it is determined that any degree of witness tampering took place, it may cause a mistrial.

Brady Violations

If a Brady violation occurs, it can cause the judge to declare a mistrial or dismiss the case altogether. If this happens before the trial, the case can be dismissed with prejudice. When this occurs, the defendant can not be tried for the same crime again in the future. If it happens during a trial, the defense may demand that the judge order a mistrial. If the trial is over and the defendant was convicted, they can appeal the verdict and request a new trial.

Giglio Violations

A Giglio violation involves exculpatory evidence that is not turned over to the defense team during a trial. Any evidence that will impeach or take away from the credibility of a witness the prosecutor intends to use must be turned over to the defense team without being requested. The Brady Principle requires that the defense must ask for evidence. Giglio, on the other hand, states that the evidence must be turned over whether it is requested or not.

Perry Mason and How He Affects Current Proceedings

Perry Mason was a fictional television character who defended potentially guilty defendants and was able to clear them of all charges. On the television show, Mason would seemingly prove a guilty man innocent in less than an hour. This was very misleading and encouraged people to believe that it was up to the defendant to prove their own innocence. This is actually the reverse of what happens in our courts. In our courts, it is the job of the prosecuting attorney to bear the brunt of proof against the defendant.

Disclosing Information

It is the job of the prosecuting attorney to disclose any information they receive about the case to the defense counsel. If this disclosure is not made in a timely manner, it can detract from their credibility and pave the way for their professional conduct to be called into question. If a defense attorney makes a motion for discovery and favorable evidence for their case is not turned over, the judge will charge the prosecutor with a Brady violation. This carries a harsh penalty and may result in sanctions against the prosecutor or the district attorney, depending on who is at fault.

The Brady Rule and Civil Cases

The Brady Rule does not apply in civil cases. The reason for this is that there is no risk of the defendant going to jail and losing their freedom. In a criminal case, the risk of jail time will dramatically affect the defendant’s freedom if they lose their case. In a civil case, a loss means financial repercussions, not jail time.

Determining if a Brady Violation Has Occurred

Brady violations are determined by what is known as the “reasonable probability of a different outcome” standard. If the court determines that the outcome of the case would be significantly different if exculpatory information was turned over, a Brady violation would occur. It will then be up to the judge to determine how to further proceed with the case. Depending on where the court is at with the trial, it will help the judge choose between a mistrial, a new trial, or allowing the defendant to file for an appeal.

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