News update by: Grace Hanoian, ACLU-DE Communications Intern

In May, the Delaware Supreme Court ruled in an important case about prosecutorial misconduct. The Supreme Court disagreed with a lower court’s opinion dismissing a murder charge because of the misconduct. Despite the disagreement over the outcome, both opinions had a common thread: the prosecutors in the case behaved poorly, and the way prosecutors are doing their jobs needs to take a hard shift toward justice.

In the case, State v. Robinson, the Department of Justice (mistakenly) suspected that Robinson’s attorney had violated an order about keeping certain evidence secret. Without a warrant, court approval, or notification to Robinson’s attorney, the Department of Justice ordered the Department of Corrections to raid Robinson’s cell for evidence including communications between Robinson and his lawyer. A member of the prosecution team then read all of the attorney-client communications and other documents taken from Robinson.

Protecting the rights of the accused is critical to the way our criminal justice system functions. That’s why there are five amendments to the US constitution regarding the rights of the people in the justice system. The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to counsel in criminal cases, which includes the right to speak privately with one’s attorney. Without that right, people accused of crimes--including innocent people--cannot safely share the full story of what happened with their attorneys in order to help their attorney prepare a defense to the allegations against them.

When the state interferes with attorney client privilege, it also violates the defendant’s right to due process, which is fundamental to our constitution and justice system. 

The Supreme Court’s decision stated that removing the badly behaving prosecutors from the case and destroying all plans previously generated for the trial would adequately remedy the harm caused by the breach of privilege while balancing the needs of the public and victims. There was no need to dismiss the case entirely, they reasoned. Chief Justice Strine disagreed that this solution went far enough, and dissented from the opinion. He argued that the breach of the attorney-client privilege and the pattern of misconduct required dismissal of the indictment. 

The Chief Justice analogized the case to cheating at a game: “This case is like a football team secretly stealing the other team’s game plan, not being honest about it when caught, and asking for the game to be played at a later time on a ‘just trust us, the folks who read your game plan will not be involved’ basis. Except that the stakes here involve a criminal defendant’s trial strategy and if the game is played later, the defendant will not only face a serious delay in his trial and the corresponding staleness in memories of witnesses, but the quite rational concern that in fact the State’s prosecution team will have benefited from having access to his trial strategy and can use that access to improve its chances of convicting him.” 

The ACLU of Delaware supports better transparency and accountability for prosecutors. We applauded Attorney General Jennings for her memo regarding prosecutorial reform earlier this year. This case underscores the need for such reforms. No one is above the law—including the people who enforce it, our prosecutors. When prosecutors violate civil liberties and constitutional rights, they must be held accountable. 

You can read the full opinion on The State of Delaware v. Robinson here.

You can read a deeper analysis of the case here.

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