Opening a door long thought closed, the City of Chicago has disclosed so-called “street files” for a civil trial against the city that began yesterday. 

“Street files” gained notoriety in Chicago for containing evidence such as notes by police officers and others that weren’t disclosed to criminal defendants’ attorneys before their trials, allowing convictions of people who otherwise might have been found not guilty.  The trove of documents that the city finally owned up to possessing covers murders from 1944 thru 1987.

As Thursday’s Chicago Tribune reported, “‘This is a big deal,’ said attorney Jon Loevy, who specializes in police misconduct lawsuits…. ‘There are lots of convicted people presently sitting in prison for crimes whose street files no one has ever seen.  And we now know that at least some of those street files contain undisclosed exculpatory information.'”

The failure of police and/or prosecuting attorneys to disclose all evidence – favorable or unfavorable to the prosecution’s case – is a basic violation of civil rights known in legal circles as a “Brady violation.” Ever since a landmark 1963 Brady v. Maryland Supreme Court decision, the courts have held that withholding evidence from the defense is a violation of the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.

The City of Chicago finally responded to the court’s decision by issuing a general order to its officers to turn over all evidence to the defendants’ attorneys.

Reported the Tribune, “Loevy said that since the change in policy in the early 1980s, the city’s response to requests for street files in wrongful conviction suits has been to flat-out deny that they exist. ”

“‘Now, in 2013, all of a sudden someone discovers hundreds of them in a bunch of file cabinets in the Police Department?’ Loevy said.”

Read more here.

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