Exculpatory evidence is a term used to describe evidence that shows that an individual accused of a crime is not guilty of the crime that he is charged with. Put another way, exculpatory evidence is evidence that is considered favorable to the accused person, or the defendant. This is in distinction to inculpatory evidence, which is evidence shows or proves the guilt of a defendant.
When a crime is committed, it is the responsibility of law enforcement and judicial officers to determine the fundamental facts of the case. This may include determining what crime was committed, when the event occurred, who may have committed the crime, who was victimized and if there are any possible motives for the crime. Once evidence has been gathered and a conclusion has been reached as to the facts of the case, the government decides whether to accuse an individual of committing the crime.
In many legal systems around the world, the defendant has the right to a court trial. During a court trial, both the prosecution and the defense present their sides of the case to a judge or jury. Once both sides have finished presenting their case, the judge or jury makes a determination as to whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty.
The prosecution will present evidence meant to bolster the government’s belief in the guilt of the defendant. For example, the prosecutor may introduce and question witnesses who observed the defendant committing the crime. Once a prosecutor presents inculpatory evidence attesting to the guilt of the defendant, the defendant has the opportunity to rebut and challenge the accuracy of the prosecution’s evidence.
The defendant may present witnesses that offer a different version of events than the prosecution’s witnesses. The defense may provide witnesses who claim the accused was not in the area where and when the crime was committed. The testimony of these witnesses would be designed to cast doubt on the version of events provided by the prosecution and therefore prove the innocence of the defendant.
In many legal jurisdictions, the prosecutor is required to disclose any exculpatory evidence discovered during the discovery process to the defense. Failure of the prosecutor to disclose exculpatory evidence can result in consequences such as a mistrial, dismissal of the case, re-trial of the case, and an appeal of the verdict reached in the trial. It can also lead to disciplinary actions against the individuals found to have withheld exculpatory evidence.