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DOJ Retreats from Fight with Rakoff Over Evidence Rules

2/2/2015
 
< Source: Wall Street Journal >


That was quick.

The Justice Department is retreating from a confrontation with Manhattan federal judge Jed Rakoff over the ability of a scientific advisory panel to look at whether evidence-sharing rules put criminal defendants at a disadvantage.

The development comes two days after Judge Rakoff quit the committee in protest. He’s now agreed to return to the panel after the Justice Department said it would allow him and its other members to raise issues of how evidence is handled in pre-trial proceedings. There’s still no guarantee that DOJ will adopt any changes to the current rules that are recommended by the committee.
 

Reports WSJ’s Devlin Barrett:

 
The rapproachment came in a phone call Thursday night between the judge and acting Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, officials said.
 
On Wednesday, Judge Rakoff fired off a letter to fellow members of the National Commission on Forensic Science, saying he would resign in the wake of the Justice Department’s decision to prevent the group from examining how evidence is made available before trial. Judge Rakoff, a longtime jurist in Manhattan, called the department’s decision “unsupportable” and wrote, “I feel I have no choice’’ but to resign from the panel.
 
Judge Rakoff was the only federal judge among the 30 people tapped in 2013 to launch the work of the commission. The panel was created to improve the overall reliability of forensic evidence after instances of shoddy scientific analysis by federal, state and local police labs helped convict suspects.
 
A copy of the judge’s letter, which was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, said Judge Rakoff was recently told Ms. Yates, the No. 2 official at the Justice Department, had decided the commission wouldn’t look at how scientific evidence is shared in the discovery phase of trial preparation. “Discovery’’ is a legal term for the sharing of evidence by both sides ahead of a trial, so that each side can prepare to counter with its own evidence or legal argument.
 
Judge Rakoff noted that, currently, federal prosecutors have fewer discovery obligations when it comes to scientific evidence than do plaintiffs in civil lawsuits. Judge Rakoff didn’t spell out which scientific areas most concern him, but many lawyers and judges have raised questions about ballistics, arson science and handwriting analysis, among others.
 
Appointed to the bench in 1996 by President Bill Clinton, Judge Rakoff has often worked on scientific issues involving the courts. He’s perhaps best known for his complaints about the lack of criminal prosecutions of Wall Street executives for their conduct during the financial crisis.