What is Exculpatory Evidence: Everything You Need To Know

what is exculpatory evidence

Various legal terms could seem imaginary or esoteric but have some actual results for everyone. Regarding criminal charges and trials, exculpatory evidence may sound like impenetrable legalization, but it differentiates between a guilty verdict and an acquittal. Exculpatory evidence is contrary to inculpatory evidence, which tries to prove guilt. This evidence exculpates the guilt of the defendant. In the U.S.A., prosecutors and police officers must disclose exculpatory evidence before plea bargaining by the defendant.

So, in the following article, let’s examine exculpatory evidence with a few examples, its violation, importance, etc.

Legal Definition of Exculpatory Evidence

Evidence in criminal prosecutions can commonly fall into two predominant categories-

Inculpatory evidence: Proof tending to incriminate a defendant or indicate their guilt.

Exculpatory evidence: Proof tending to exonerate a defendant or setting up their innocence.

So an eyewitness testifying that at the time of the crime, the accused was at the crime location could constitute inculpatory evidence, while a mobile location saying that the accused was somewhere else could be exculpatory. D.N.A. proof relying on the test results can be either inculpatory or exculpatory. 

What is Exculpatory Evidence?

In criminal legislation, exculpatory evidence is any fact, testimony, or document that, if used at a criminal trial, might help demonstrate that the accused was not guilty. 

Exculpatory evidence consists of something that would directly display the innocence of the accused or shows an excuse, justification, or defense for the accusations. Further, exculpatory evidence applies to punishment and sentencing. 

Generally, sentencing relies on diverse facts going to mitigation or aggravation. So, exculpatory evidence might apply to an issue associated with mitigation or aggravation. 

Exculpatory evidence does not go into each detail of the charged crime but can go to one detail handiest. As used in criminal legislation, exculpatory evidence relates to evidence held and possessed by the government, like government prosecutors or police officers.

What Material Should You Take Into Consideration as Exculpatory Evidence?

Any information favorable to the defendant that might affect the result of a criminal case or the penalties the court imposes is considered exculpatory evidence. The material may be instrumental in proving that the defendant is not guilty or that they had a smaller role in the alleged offense than firstly claimed.

Examples of exculpatory evidence consist of the following-

Exonerating the Defendant

This data could counter the claim of the prosecutor that the defendant is guilty. It consists of matters like a witness mentioning that the defendant is not the one who robbed the shop, an accident concluding that the collision was caused by someone else, and every other person admitting the crime or D.N.A. outcomes that do not match the defendant’s genetic material.

Disproving a Fact of the Offense

This data would negate the claim of the prosecutor that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. For instance, the prosecutor may allege that the defendant committed aggravated arson. Still, evidence exists demonstrating that the defendant did not act with the intent to injure anyone once they lit the fire.

Decreasing the Defendant’s Function

This evidence might show that, even though the defendant could have been involved in the alleged crime, they were not the leading actor. For instance, the defendant might have been present throughout a robbery where someone got fatally shot, but their mate pulled the gun trigger.

Case of Brady v. Maryland (1963)

The Brady v. Maryland case of 1963 was related to a defendant in a criminal prosecution charged with murder and sentenced to jail.

The prosecutor had facts showing that another prisoner, Brady’s mate, had already confessed to the murder. The prosecutor did not submit this information to the defense or the court.

Consequently, the jury convicted Brady and sentenced death penalty for him. They might have given a different outcome if they knew the new evidence.

The suppression of the proof denied the defendant his due procedure of law, which contradicts the American Constitution and Bill of Rights.

What is the Brady Rule or Brady Material? 

The exculpatory evidence is called Brady material and consists of proof that can prove the defendant’s innocence. The Brady Rule calls for the prosecutor to show exculpatory evidence to the defense before trial. But, the defendant must show that the evidence will assist their case.

For instance, the defendant can display the proof that:

  • Proves their innocence,
  • May lessen their sentence, or
  • Discredits one of the witnesses of the prosecution

The Brady rule guards the defendant’s right to a fair trial. 

What are the Consequences of a Brady Violation?

The Supreme court of the U.S. ruled that Brady violations represent a violation of an individual right to due procedure. Due procedure rights are blanketed by the Constitution of the U.S. and consist of things like:

  • The right to have an attorney,
  • The right to a jury trial,
  • The right to criminal charges notice, and
  • The right to stand your accuser.

If a court finds out that a Brady violation occurred, the court needs to change the defendant’s conviction and order a new trial.

In a few cases wherein a prosecutor intentionally withholds exculpatory evidence, a court might also punish or sanction the prosecutor.

What is a Giglio Violation?

In 1972, the Supreme court of the U.S. gave a decision in a case known as Giglio vs. the USA. In that case, the prosecution pledged a witness that he would not be charged with any criminal charges if he agreed to attest against the defendant, John Giglio.

The prosecution did not tell the defendant or attorney of their settlement with the witness. The witness’s deposition resulted in Giglio’s indictment and his conviction and sentence to five years in jail.

In its decision, the Supreme court judged that exculpatory evidence covered any deals or negotiations between the witnesses and the prosecution in a criminal case.

Even though accidental, the court must order a new trial if the prosecution withholds any proof that would prove a defendant’s innocence.

Nowadays, a Giglio violation happens if the prosecution negotiates with a witness and fails to inform the defendant of the deal. Giglio’s violations require the courtroom to call for a brand new trial.

Importance of Exculpatory Evidence

The core principles and features of the United States justice system, which has roots in British common law, have long desired to save the innocent rather than punish the guilty. The English jurist William Blackstone once wrote, “Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”

Exculpatory evidence is vital because it will save the imprisonment of an innocent or possibly not guilty person. The right to liberty of the defendant is at stake.

That’s why prosecutors, for justice, fair play, and safeguarding the constitutional rights of the accused, have a legal obligation to share exculpatory evidence with the defense team and court. 


Exculpatory evidence is essential to the American Criminal Justice system; each defendant must acquire a fair trial. It means evidence that tends to demonstrate the defendant’s innocence. For that to happen, the defendant’s attorney must access proof and other materials that illustrate his client’s innocence. The U.S. Supreme court stated that prosecutors must divulge exculpatory evidence to access this proof. 

The Brady case did not state how a defense lawyer’s request for exculpatory evidence should be worded. But, the Supreme court cleared that prosecutors must turn over all materially exculpatory evidence in all instances, even when defendants do not ask for the proof.

Eventually, if a court finds any Brady violations in a criminal prosecution, a prosecuting attorney may be subjected to civil rights lawsuits.


When should Brady and Giglio’s material be disclosed?

Whether the defendant requests it or not, prosecutors have the legal duty to reveal exculpatory evidence to the defense team.

Does the Brady Rule apply in civil cases?

No, the defendant’s freedom is not always at stake in civil prosecutions. Unlike the criminal trial, the civil procedure lets in greater avenues to find evidence.

How is a Brady violation decided?

The failure to disclose or share evidence considered as Brady material with the defendant could be a deprivation of a fair trial and, consequently, is regarded as a Brady violation.

Does the defendant have a right to Exculpatory evidence from the prosecution?

Under Brady v. Maryland, prosecutors must hand over exculpatory proof to the defendant, and this obligation exists even without any request from the defendant.
However, a request for exculpatory evidence can be beneficial for several reasons.