KANSAS CITY, Mo. (CN) – Jackson County prosecutors cannot be relied on to give a lawyer accused of killing his partner all the evidence in the case to ensure a fair trial, a state appeals court ruled.
Richard Buchli was convicted in 2002 of first-degree murder in the 2000 beating death of Richard Armitage, who was 49. The conviction was thrown out in 2006 because of evidence not turned over to the defense.
The Western District Court of Appeals’ 8-2 decision shot down an appeal by Jackson County prosecutors to retry the case.
“But the state ignores the detailed factual findings of the trial court that the state (at the show-cause hearing) was unable to articulate, with any certainty, what evidence the state had in its possession and what evidence Buchli did not have in his possession,” Judge Gary D. Witt wrote in the majority opinion.
“Buchli is entitled to all of the evidence in the state’s possession in order to receive a fair trial. Therefore, the state’s failure to comply with the mandatory rules of discovery has caused a fundamental unfairness and prejudiced Buchli.”
Two judges disagreed. Judge Karen King Mitchell found that the trial court’s decision to exclude the evidence was based on hypotheticals, not facts.
“It is indisputably true that the general purpose of criminal discovery rules requiring the state to disclose a variety of information to a defendant is to permit a defendant a meaningful opportunity to prepare for trial and to avoid surprise,” Mitchell wrote in dissent. “There is no authority, however, for presuming prejudice to a defendant in the face of the State’s discovery violation, and certainly not prejudice rising to a level that implicates a defendant’s due process rights. … The trial court noted certain hypothetical prejudice that may have occurred. The trial court’s exclusion order noted that the overall delay occasioned to Buchli by virtue of the lengthy and tortured procedural history of his case could have had an impact: witnesses may have moved; witnesses may have had arrests, convictions, or disciplinary actions taken against them; evidence may have been lost; or the chain of custody for evidence may have been broken. However, the trial court made the same observation at the time it entered its discovery order, and the observation served to explain why the trial court believed it appropriate to direct the state to produce everything to Buchli – even materials the state had already produced. I do not, therefore, read the trial court’s observation as a finding that any of those things actually occurred. The trial court thus did not make any factual findings with respect to the prejudice actually caused Buchli by virtue of the prosecutor’s violation of the discovery order.”
Judge Witt countered by arguing that the dissent opinion does not hold prosecutors accountable to the rules of discovery.
“Moreover, the fact that serious charges are involved should weigh more heavily in favor of Buchli, if such a balancing test were to be employed, simply because he is the only party with a liberty interest in the pending criminal litigation,” Witt wrote. “The fact remains that trial courts routinely impose sanctions that impair a client’s substantive rights because of the attorney’s conduct and actions. Here, the dissent gives credence to the theory that the trial court must be more forgiving of the state’s incompetence and/or misconduct when the criminal charges are more serious, but this standard acts to immunize the state during prosecutions of serious offenses regardless of the state’s conduct.
“When an individual’s liberty interest hangs in the balance (in this case the potential of a life sentence without parole), the trial court must be empowered to do what is expressly allowed by Rule 25.18 in sanctioning the state through ‘enter[ing] such other order as it deems just under the circumstance.'” (Brackets in original.)
The Jackson County prosecutor told the Kansas City Star she is reviewing her options in the case.
Judges Lisa White Hardwick, James M. Smart Jr., Joseph M. Ellis, Victor C. Howard, James E. Welsh, Alok Ahuja and Mark D. Pfeiffer joined Witt in the majority opinion. Judge Cynthia L. Martin joined Mitchell in the dissenting opinion. Judge Thomas H. Newton was recused.