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VTDigger Investigation Reveals How Concerns About Officer Credibility Are Put On The Record

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The VTDigger investigative series Tarnished Badge looks at how concerns about the credibility of Vermont law enforcement officers are put on the record, and the irregular approach some prosecutors take to documenting those concerns.

A new VTDigger investigation looks at how prosecutors raise credibility concerns about Vermont law enforcement officials through so-called Brady Letters, which put those concerns on the record. But the state lacks any way to track and preserve these letters, which means the documentation won't follow an officer who moves from one department to another. 

VPR's Mitch Wertlieb spoke with VTDigger criminal justice reporter Alan Keays about his investigative series Tarnished Badge. Their conversation is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: In the simplest terms, what are these Brady letters and what did your investigation find about how the state tracks or fails to track these letters over time? 

Alan Keays: Brady letters, also often referred to as Giglio letters. And both get their names from national cases that have to do with the requirement of prosecutors to turn over evidence to the defense that may help prove their client's innocence or lead to a lesser sentence. Our investigation, looking at these over the last five years, discovered that there were about 30 letters issued. And nobody is really tracking them. Instead, each of the 14 elected state's attorney issues them on their own. And there is no centralized system for keeping them, or storing them, or alerting state attorney in another county when one is issued. 

Did you find any examples of officers subjected to a Brady letter who then went on to work elsewhere as officers, because the state had no effective method of tracking their behavior? 

Yes, there was one who moved department in, the police chief knew, and he was hiring that officer, that that officer had a Brady letter but decided to give that person the second test. That officer was eventually let go, after an issue with the search did not square with a video of that search in the state's attorney saying that she would no longer be accepting criminal cases from that officer.

It's strange because in neighboring New Hampshire, there is a much simpler way to track these kind of complaints. What is it there? And why isn't something similar found in Vermont?

They have "Laurie’s List." [According to a New Hampshire Public Radio report, a 1995 murder conviction against Carl Laurie was overturned after it was revealed prosecutors failed to disclose to the defense a history of misconduct by one of the officers involved in Laurie’s arrest.]

It's kind of a centralized system of officers who have credibility issues. There's been talk about having a centralized system [in Vermont], but from talking to some of the state's attorneys and some of the people involved in the legal field here in Vermont, they said it's hard to come up with a system that allows for the state's attorneys, who are independently elected, to still have a say and not lose some of the power within their jurisdiction.

And one difference between Vermont and New Hampshire is that the list in New Hampshire is confidential. And there is currently a court case ongoing, from news agencies and different advocacy groups, trying to get that list released. In Vermont, I just did a public records request to each of the state's attorney's offices for these letters, and was supplied them from the states attorneys who have actually issued them. 

You found that Rutland County State's Attorney Rose Kennedy has written up the most officers, nine of them, out of all of Vermont's 14 state's attorneys. That's led to some tensions between Kennedy and the county's largest force, the Rutland City Police Department. What did you find there? What was that tension stemming from? 

Yes, six of those nine officers came from the Rutland City Police Department. The department in Rutland has questioned whether Kennedy was taking too broad of an approach when a letter needed to be written. And the department thought some were issued when an officer had simply made a mistake, versus intentionally trying to mislead. 

Well, there's the other extreme that you write about as well. In Franklin County, State's Attorney Jim Hughes has not issued a single letter [since 2015], according to your reporting, about an officer in his jurisdiction. This is even though several [St. Albans Police Department] officers have been linked to a number of cases involving inappropriate conduct. What's behind the inaction in regard to those St. Albans cases? 

Well, the Franklin state's attorney never got back to me to explain his reasoning for never issuing a Brady letter in those cases. But I did talk to other states attorneys about it, and they talked about how these letters are not just for criminal conduct. Criminal conduct doesn't necessarily lead to a Brady letter. Instead, they were issued just when credibility is in question, and whether the officers had lied or had been dishonest in a case, and whether that person would have a problem when taking the stand as a witness. And whether that person's credibility might be questioned by a defense attorney. 

Some of the officers quoted in your third story in the series, they say that these Brady letters kind of make them feel like they just can't make any mistakes. They're walking on eggshells, in a way. That the power of these letters really shouldn't be in the hands of one prosecutor, depending on which county. Did your reporting dig in to questions about whether there could, or should be, an independent review, or a third party that could wield that kind of power instead?

There are ideas that had come up that included allowing citizen participation oversight into the process. Though some state's attorneys pointed out that they are each elected officials and should not be given up that authority to others who may be from outside their counties or jurisdictions.

Alan, what's the upshot from this reporting from the people who are most directly involved? Do they feel like this system is working here in Vermont, or do they feel like this is a big problem that needs to be fixed?

Most of the people I talked to, talked about how this was a problem that needs to be fixed. There needs to be some standards for when these [letters] are issued, as well as some centralized location for where these are kept.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb @mwertlieb

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