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Iowa Supreme Court Announces Brady Standard Applies to Motion for New Trial Based on Withheld Exculpatory Medical Records

Prior to being tried for sexual abuse of a child, Patrick J. Barrett, Jr. requested the victim’s privileged mental health and counseling records. Pursuant to Iowa Code § 622.10(4)(a)(2)(b), the district court conducted an in camera review of the records, determined there was no exculpatory material, and denied Barrett’s request. Barrett was convicted at the ensuing trial, and he appealed.

The court of appeals determined the records did contain exculpatory material and remanded to the district court with instructions to disclose the exculpatory material and to “consider whether a new trial is necessary.” On remand, the district court reviewed under the “weight-of-the-evidence standard” and denied the motion for new trial. Barrett appealed, arguing the trial court applied an incorrect standard.

The Iowa Supreme Court observed that while it had not previously been called upon to decide the appropriate standard for a new trial determination after a district court failed to order production of exculpatory medical records, in a footnote in State v. Neiderbach, 837 N.W.2d 180 (Iowa 2013), the Court did briefly discuss similarities between the process involved in remands under § 622.10(4) and situations where prosecutors failed to provide exculpatory evidence to defendants known as “Brady violations.”

Iowa Code § 622.10 generally bars a mental health professional from disclosing “any confidential communication” associated with the patient’s treatment. But one exception provides that if a criminal defendant makes a threshold showing that the records contain exculpatory material not available anywhere else, the district court reviews the records in camera. If the judge determines exculpatory materials exist, then the materials are to be disclosed to the parties. § 622.10(4)(a)(2)(a) & (b). The purpose of the statute is to strike a balance between protecting the rights of an accused to a fair trial and the rights of victims to not be subjected to further abuse and humiliation by granting defendants unfettered access to the victims’ medical files.

To establish a Brady violation, a defendant must establish that the prosecutor suppressed evidence favorable to the accused; the evidence was material to the determination of the guilt of the accused; and there exists a reasonable probability that, had the evidence been disclosed to the defendant, the result of the proceeding would have been different. The Brady standard is calibrated to steer prosecutors to err on the side of caution and avoid a potential reversal by disclosing evidence in cases where the exculpatory nature of the evidence is debatable. Kyles v. Whitley, 514 U.S. 419 (1995).

On the other hand, the U.S. Supreme Court has rejected the “harmless error analysis” for cases where prosecutors withheld exculpatory evidence. United States v. Bagley, 473 U.S. 667 (1985). Under the harmless error analysis, the prosecution would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the withheld evidence would not have affected the verdict, and this standard would compel prosecutors to open their files to defendants for fear of reversal as the result of withholding any evidence. Id.

The Iowa Supreme Court observed that while Brady concerned exculpatory evidence withheld by the prosecution, the materiality standard protects the interests at stake in the instant case where the evidence was erroneously withheld by the district court. The harmless error standard is too lenient because it would prompt judges to disclose too much of a victim’s medical record and defeat the statute’s purpose. But the weight-of-the-evidence standard is too high, the Court determined. Under that standard, a court determines whether the verdict was contrary to the law or evidence, i.e., whether “a greater amount of credible evidence supports one side of an issue or cause than the other.” State v. Reeves, 670 N.W.2d 199 (Iowa 2003). But Brady’s reasoning is based on the fact that when exculpatory evidence is withheld, it prevents the defense from even knowing of the existence of the evidence and hamstrings the defense’s ability in preparing strategy and in presenting the case, explained the Court. Brady doesn’t require the defendant to show that the withheld evidence is greater than the evidence that was presented.

Having concluded that Brady’s materiality standard is appropriate when deciding a motion for new trial where the district court failed to disclose exculpatory materials under § 622.10(4), the Court observed that the district court in Barrett’s case did not have the benefit of this opinion when deciding the motion for new trial.

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State v. Barrett



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