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A Better Partnership
August 06, 2015

MSC: The prosecution has an affirmative duty to correct false testimony

In People v. Smith, No. 148305, the Michigan Supreme Court granted defendant’s application for leave to appeal on whether a prosecutor’s failure to correct false testimony violated the defendant’s due-process rights and a delay of trial for 41 months violated the defendant’s speedy-trial right. The Court held that the defendant was entitled to a new trial because the prosecutor had an affirmative duty to correct false testimony in seeking a conviction, but concluded that the defendant did not show sufficient prejudice to merit dismissal for a violation of his right to a speedy trial.
The defendant was convicted of armed robbery, MCL 750.529 and first-degree felony murder, MCL 750.316(1)(B). One of the prosecutor’s witnesses, Mark Yancy, falsely testified that he had not been paid for his cooperation in relation to defendant’s case. The prosecutor did nothing to correct the false testimony. The defendant appealed. The Court of Appeals affirmed, reasoning that the panel was not persuaded that the prosecutor’s failure to correct Yancy’s false testimony had made a difference in the jury’s estimation of his credibility and that the defendant had not shown prejudice sufficient to constitute a violation of his right to a speedy trial. 
The Michigan Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals’ judgment in part, vacated defendant’s convictions, and remanded case for a new trial, reasoning that: (i) the prosecution has an affirmative duty to correct false testimony, and the duty specifically applies when the testimony concerns remuneration for a witness (ii) Yancy’s trial testimony left an overall impression to the panel that was false, which affected the jury’s judgment, and the prosecutor capitalized on and exploited it; and (iii) the delay before defendant’s trial was extraordinary, but the defendant did not show sufficient prejudice to merit dismissal for a violation of his right to a speedy trial.
Justices Bernstein and Kelly dissented in part, and would have also ruled for the defendant on his speedy-trial claim.
Justice Zahra dissented from the majority’s analysis of the prosecutor’s affirmative obligation to correct false testimony.  Justice Kelly agreed with Justice Zahra’s analysis of that issue, but would have concluded that the prosecutor’s conduct fell below even that standard.

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