Op-ed: Real discovery reform is essential for justice

Queens Borough President Melinda Katz


On March 2, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez took another step forward in making our city more just and equitable by strongly declaring his support for reforming New York’s outdated discovery laws.

Currently, prosecutors can deny defendants access to important evidence being used against them until immediately before their trials. This is not only unfair; it stands completely at odds with what should be the core mission of a district attorney’s office.

I am proud to support DA Gonzalez’s call for open-file discovery for all New Yorkers, and this will also be my practice as Queens District Attorney.

Opponents like the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York (DAASNY) cite concerns for the safety of witnesses that provide testimony to the prosecution. While witness safety is always a top priority for District Attorneys, it does not have to happen at the expense of judicial fairness to defendants.

The Discovery for Justice Reform Act, now under consideration in Albany, would preserve protections and rights for witnesses. And while New York is embarrassingly one among only four states (with Louisiana, South Carolina, and Wyoming) with such restrictive discovery procedures, somehow our country is not facing an epidemic of discovery-enabled witness tampering across the 46 other states.

Discovery reform has a higher chance of enactment than ever before in New York. The Discovery for Justice Reform Act, sponsored by Assemblymember Joe Lentol and state Senator Jamaal Bailey, would allow New York to modernize and refine its criminal justice procedures. The bill’s backers include organizations like the Innocence Project, Citizen Action, and public defenders, who have joined together to form the Repeal the Blindfold Coalition.

While we hope Albany takes the next vital step forward, DA Gonzalez’s office already voluntarily practices open-file discovery for its cases, providing evidence to defendants as it is received. Like District Attorneys across the country, his office has not seen the kind of witness tampering or other negative effects that DAASNY and other opponents claim would be the inevitable result of these practices.

We need not fear fairness in the courtroom.  Providing immediate access to evidence means that both sides are on a level playing field, which is fundamental to our system of justice.

Conversely, virtually blindfolding defendants against critical information means that we are stacking the deck against them before a trial even starts. Yet our current laws allow prosecutors to predetermine outcomes without letting our court system do its job, denying wrongfully accused individuals the ability to participate meaningfully in their own defense, while actual criminals remain free to continue victimizing our communities.

Every DA’s core responsibility is to achieve justice for their community, and that means justice on both sides of the case – for both the victims and the accused. We can achieve this, with fairness to everyone, by aggressively prosecuting those who break our laws, while rejecting unfair treatment and wrongful convictions of defendants.  

Open-file discovery’s success in Brooklyn has shown us that it can and should be done in Queens and across our state. Let’s end the practice of withholding evidence from defendants, and let’s move our criminal justice system into alignment with the rest of our nation.

Katz, who currently serves as Queens borough president, is a candidate for district attorney.