The Clark County district attorney’s office must release more information about its practice of paying witnesses in exchange for their testimony, according to the terms of a legal settlement filed Friday in District Court.
For the first time the DA’s office will make public entries from its “inducement index,” a database that tracks when prosecutors bargain and enter deals with witnesses, along with other records documenting benefits witnesses received.
All the documents must be provided within four weeks.
County commissioners voted this month to pay the Las Vegas Review-Journal $55,000 for attorney fees as part of the settlement.
“This is a really great win for transparency in Nevada. It’s also a great win for ensuring criminal defendants have their constitutional rights protected,” American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada legal director Amy Rose said. “The defense attorney may be able to use (information about payments) to show that the witness may not be reliable (and) may have ulterior motives.”
The Review-Journal sued for the records in 2014 to gain better insight into whether prosecutors were informing defense attorneys that witnesses in criminal cases were receiving compensation or other benefits. The requirement to share such information was established in 1963 by the U.S. Supreme Court case Brady v. Maryland.
“It’s important for the public to know whether the DA’s office is fulfilling its requirement to document and provide exculpatory evidence to defense attorneys,” Review-Journal Executive Editor Glenn Cook said. “The Review-Journal was willing to litigate this case for so long not just for the sake of transparency, but for the sake of justice itself.”
The payments were kept secret from defense attorneys for nearly a decade until a Review-Journal investigation revealed their existence in August 2014.
The newspaper found that some payments exceeded $1,000. In some instances payments were authorized for a cellphone bill and high school computer courses. The DA’s office confirmed that from December 2004 to August 2014 it made 56 payments. Most were for rent, the office reported.
Following the investigation’s publication, the DA’s office announced it would ensure defense lawyers were aware of payments to witnesses in their cases, even if the cases never went to trial. Clark County launched an audit and found that funds designated for witness payments had been spent on items such as trophies, business cards and office decor.
Friday’s settlement requires that the inducement index entries provided will include details about what each witness was offered, the name of the prosecutor who made the offer and case numbers.
Witness names must be provided if it was disclosed during testimony. That information can be kept secret if the DA’s office determines the witness is in danger.
“We’re pleased that we settled on a mechanism that allows the Review-Journal and the public to access records while still allowing the district attorney to protect witness safety,” Review-Journal attorney Maggie McLetchie said.