As I mentioned in today’s column, the prosecution team of Angela Corey in the Zimmerman case have been accused of repeated prosecutorial abuse in the withholding of evidence from the defense. Circuit Judge Debra Nelson seemed intent on the most recent charge of withholding text messages to want to avoid the issue, but she earlier held a sanctions hearing with the testimony of the man who brought the violation to the attention of the defense: IT director Ben Kruidbos. Corey has been widely criticized for over-charging the case by experts, including an article out today, and her team was widely criticized for putting on a weak case for prosecution. Now, before Nelson has ruled on her office’s withholding of evidence, Corey has fired Kruidbos. His termination before a ruling on the alleged prosecutorial abuse only strengthens his claims as a whistleblower and throws the ethics of Corey and her office in great question.
Kruidbos received a letter today telling him that he “can never again be trusted to step foot in this office.” This obviously angry termination followed his extraction of photos from the cell phone of shooting victim Trayvon Martin that showed a gun, a marijuana plant and jewelry, as well as a text message referring to a gun transaction. Kruidbos was surprised that the evidence was not turned over to the defense — a common violation in criminal cases where prosecutors withhold evidence to prevent its use by the defense.
Corey’s office makes no bones about the primary complaint about Kruidbos, though it throws in a couple of other prior complaints: “Your egregious lack of regard for the sensitive nature of the information handled by this office is completely abhorrent. You have proven to be completely untrustworthy. Because of your deliberate, willful and unscrupulous actions, you can never again be trusted to step foot in this office.” This is a curious objection from an office accused of violating core evidentiary rules in a push for conviction at all costs.
I have previously disagreed that the withholding of evidence in this case was minor or just a common practice. The prosecutor handed over the evidence with only days before the trial. That did not leave much time to authenticate the text messages and video which portray Martin as someone with a violent disposition or at least a fascination with violence. This included the filming of a homeless man fighting for a bike as a voice (the defense claimed was Martin) laughing at the disturbing scene. (Previously, the defense wrongly stated that the film showed Martin’s friends beating up a homeless man but they later apologized and said it was a video to two homeless men fighting). Other evidence included text messages talking about violence or showing a gun that the defense wanted to introduce.
The failure to turn over evidence or the delayed disclosure is the most common form of prosecutorial abuse. Handing over such evidence three or four days before a major trial leaves the defense with few options as attorneys are organizing their case and marshaling their witnesses. Corey’s decision to terminate the man who disclosed the withholding of evidence before a ruling on the alleged violations is highly questionable and speaks more to the anger of being called to account for sitting on such evidence. It is an unfortunate reality of high-profile cases that prosecutors will sometimes yield to the pressure to win at any cost as we saw in the Ted Stevens case, the Duke Lacrosse case and other examples of prosecutorial abuse.
Finally, the termination of Kruidbos reflects that same tone-deaf approach that Corey’s office showed at trial. While Nelson seems resistant to the claims of misconduct, most judges would find the timing of this termination of a witness highly problematic before they actually rule on the merits of the violations.