In this hypothetical, in a pending criminal prosecution, the prosecutor is aware of exculpatory evidence, in the form of witness statements accusing another individual of the offense with which the defendant is charged.  The prosecutor is also aware that the primary inculpatory witness, an eyewitness to the offense, has died and therefore will not be available to testify in future proceedings in the case.  There is an upcoming preliminary hearing scheduled in the case, although the prosecutor has offered a plea bargain in which the defendant would plead guilty to a lesser offense and waive the preliminary hearing.  The prosecutor has not disclosed either the exculpatory evidence or the death of the primary witness.




1.         Is the “timely disclosure” of exculpatory evidence, as required by Rule 3.8(d), broader than the disclosure mandated by Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), and other case law interpreting the Due Process clause of the Constitution?  If so, what constitutes “timely disclosure” for the purpose of Rule 3.8(d)?


2.         During plea negotiations, does a prosecutor have a duty to disclose the death or unavailability of a primary witness for the prosecution?




The applicable Rules of Professional Conduct are Rule 3.8(d)[1], Rule 3.3(a)(1)[2], Rule 4.1[3], and Rule 8.4(c)[4].




            Pursuant to Brady v. Maryland and subsequent cases, a prosecutor has the legal obligation to disclose material exculpatory evidence to a defendant in time for the defendant to make use of it at trial.  A number of cases interpreting this legal obligation have noted that the prosecutor’s ethical duty to disclose exculpatory evidence is broader than the legal duty arising from the Due Process clause, although they have not explored the contours of that ethical duty.[5]       


            Rule 3.8(d) does not refer to or incorporate, in the language of the Rule or its comments, the Brady standard for disclosure.  The standard established by the Rule is also significantly different from the Brady standard in at least two ways: first, the Rule is not limited to “material” evidence, but rather applies to all evidence which has some exculpatory effect on the defendant’s guilt or sentence; second, the Rule only requires disclosure when the prosecutor has actual knowledge of the evidence and its exculpatory nature[6], while Brady imputes knowledge of other state actors, such as the police, to the prosecutor.  These differences from the Brady standard raise the further question of whether Rule 3.8(d) requires earlier disclosure than the Brady standard, which requires only that the evidence be disclosed in time for the defendant to make effective use of it.  Thus, the prosecutor has complied with the legal disclosure requirement if the evidence is disclosed in the midst of trial so long as the defendant has an opportunity to put on the relevant evidence.[7]  


            Although the Committee has never definitively addressed the question, it opines today that the duty of timely disclosure of exculpatory evidence requires earlier disclosure than the Brady standard, which is necessarily retrospective, requires.  This conclusion is largely based on the response to Read v. Virginia State Bar, in which the Supreme Court of Virginia reversed the Virginia State Bar Disciplinary Board’s order revoking a prosecutor’s license, finding that the prosecutor had complied with his legal obligations under Brady and therefore had complied with the correlative ethics rule in force at that time.  The disciplinary rule in effect at that time was DR 8-102 of the Virginia Code of Professional Responsibility which read, “The prosecutor in a criminal case or a government lawyer shall . . . [d]isclose to a defendant all information required by law.” 


At the time of the conduct at issue, Beverly Read was a Commonwealth’s Attorney.  Read was conducting the prosecution of an arson case.  During the investigation, the Commonwealth discovered two witnesses, Sils and Dunbar, who both identified the defendant at the scene of the crime.  Sils had second thoughts after he identified the defendant in a line-up and later became convinced that the defendant was not the person Sils had observed at the scene of the crime.  Sils disclosed to Read that the defendant was definitely not the man observed at the scene of the crime.  Read told Sils that he would not be called as a witness and that his presence was no longer necessary. Read concluded his case and rested without disclosing that the two witnesses had changed their statements. When Sils went home and had further discussions with the other witness, Dunbar, both became convinced that the defendant was not the man they saw.  They returned to the courthouse during the trial the following day and agreed to testify for the defense.  Read then attempted to pass a message to defense counsel that would have disclosed the exculpatory information but defense counsel refused to accept the writing.  Unsuccessful in passing this information to defense counsel, Read then read into the record that the two witnesses had recanted and would testify that the defendant was not the man they saw at the scene of the crime.  After this exchange, defense counsel moved to dismiss for prosecutorial misconduct.  The motion to dismiss was denied.  A complaint against Read was made with the Virginia State Bar and a disciplinary proceeding ensued.


Read’s counsel argued that his client had complied with Brady because the information was available to use during trial, and therefore had disclosed “all information required by law.”  In spite of the Board’s finding that Read had willfully intended to see the defendant tried without the disclosure that the two witnesses had recanted, the Supreme Court of Virginia agreed that Read had complied with the disciplinary rule, reversed the Disciplinary Board’s decision, and entered final judgment that Read had not engaged in any misconduct.  Following this decision, the Bar rewrote the relevant rule, replacing the Brady standard with the standard now found in Rule 3.8(d), clarifying that the prosecutor’s ethical duty under that rule is not coextensive with the prosecutor’s legal duty under Brady. 


In light of the conclusion that Rule 3.8(d) requires earlier disclosure than the Brady standard, the Committee next turns to the meaning of “timely disclosure.”  In general, “timely” is defined as “occurring at a suitable or opportune time” or “coming early or at the right time.”  Thus, a timely disclosure is one that is made as soon as practicable considering all the facts and circumstances of the case.  On the other hand, the duty to make a timely disclosure is violated when a prosecutor intentionally delays making the disclosure without lawful justification or good cause.    


The text of the Rule makes clear that a court order is sufficient to delay or excuse disclosure of information that would otherwise have to be turned over to the defendant.  Thus, where the disclosure of particular facts at a particular time may jeopardize the investigation or a witness, the prosecutor should immediately seek a protective order or other guidance from the court in order to avoid those potential risks.  As specified by the Rule, however, disclosure must be “precluded or modified by order of a court” (emphasis added) in order for the prosecutor to be excused from disclosure.


Because this is not a bright-line rule, the Committee cannot give a definitive answer to the question of whether the prosecutor must immediately turn over the exculpatory evidence at issue in the hypothetical; however, the prosecutor may not withhold the evidence merely because his legal obligations pursuant to Brady have not yet been triggered.

As to the second question, assuming that the witness’s unavailability does not come within the scope of Rule 3.8(d), other rules might obligate the prosecutor to disclose this information during plea negotiations or when the plea bargain is being presented to the court. 


Specifically, Rules 3.3, 4.1, and 8.4(c) all forbid making false statements or misrepresentations in various circumstances. Rule 4.1(a) generally prohibits making a false statement of fact or law, and Rule 8.4(c) specifically forbids any misrepresentation that “reflects adversely on the lawyer’s fitness to practice law.” Both of these provisions would apply to any misrepresentation or false statement made in the course of plea negotiations with the defendant/his lawyer. Rule 3.3(a)(1) specifically forbids any false statement of fact or law to a tribunal, which includes any statements made in the course of presenting a plea agreement to the court for approval and entry of the guilty plea. Accordingly, the prosecutor may not make a false statement about the availability of the witness, regardless of whether the unavailability of the witness is evidence that must be timely disclosed pursuant to Rule 3.8(d), either to the opposing lawyer during negotiations or to the court when the plea is entered.[8]


This opinion is advisory only based upon the facts as presented, and not binding on any court or tribunal.           


Committee Opinion

July 23, 2012

[1] Rule 3.8 Additional Responsibilities Of A Prosecutor

A lawyer engaged in a prosecutorial function shall:


(d) make timely disclosure to counsel for the defendant, or to the defendant if he has no counsel, of the existence of evidence which the prosecutor knows tends to negate the guilt of the accused, mitigate the degree of the offense, or reduce the punishment, except when disclosure is precluded or modified by order of a court;


[2] Rule 3.3 Candor Toward the Tribunal

(a) A lawyer shall not knowingly:

                (1) make a false statement of fact or law to a tribunal;


[3] Rule 4.1 Truthfulness In Statements To Others

In the course of representing a client a lawyer shall not knowingly:

(a) make a false statement of fact or law; or

(b) fail to disclose a fact when disclosure is necessary to avoid assisting a criminal or fraudulent act by a client.


[4] Rule 8.4 Misconduct

It is professional misconduct for a lawyer to:


(c) engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation which reflects adversely on the lawyer’s fitness to practice law;

[5] See Cone v. Bell, 129 S. Ct. 1769, 1783 n. 15 (2009) (“Although the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, as interpreted by Brady, only mandates the disclosure of material evidence, the obligation to disclose evidence favorable to the defense may arise more broadly under a prosecutor’s ethical or statutory obligations.”), citing Rule 3.8(d); Kyles v. Whitley, 514 U.S. 419, 436 (1995) (noting that Brady “requires less of the prosecution than” Rule 3.8(d)).


[6] As Comment [4] to Rule 3.8 explains, “[p]aragraphs (d) and (e) address knowing violations of the respective provisions so as to allow for better understanding and easier enforcement by excluding situations (paragraph (d)), for example, where the lawyer/prosecutor does not know the theory of the defense so as to be able to assess the exculpatory nature of evidence…”


[7] See e.g., Read v. Virginia State Bar, 233 Va. 560, 357 S.E.2d 544 (1987).

[8] See also Rule 3.8(a), which bars a prosecutor from filing or maintaining a charge that the prosecutor knows is not supported by probable cause.