In the early 1990s, Marvin Mayfield was accused of a burglary in Brooklyn. He said the judge set bail at $7,000. But he couldn't afford it and spent 11 months in jail on Rikers Island.

“During this time I was abused, assaulted, my legs broken, I was assaulted by staff and by  fellow detainees for 11 months of hell,” he recently recalled. “Only to find out that there was no evidence against me for this case. I knew this all along, but the district attorneys withheld this and postponed and postponed.” 

Mayfield accepted a plea bargain which included outpatient drug treatment.

Currently, prosecutors can wait until the start of a trial to turn over evidence, making New York one of the toughest states for defendants to obtain information that will be used against them. Defense attorneys call this the “blindfold law” and have long complained that it pressures too many people to accept a plea. Only 5 percent of indicted felony cases in New York City went to trial in 2018, and just 2 percent of all cases (including misdemeanors), according to data from the Office of Court Administration that was analyzed by the Center for Court Innovation

But in January, both prosecutors and defense attorneys will have to share all “discoverable” materials within 15 days of arraignment. This includes witness statements, police body camera footage and DNA tests. 

Mayfield, who’s now in his late 50s and an organizer with Just Leadership USA, lobbied for this reform. He expects it will lead to big changes in courtrooms.

“It will absolutely lead to more trials,” Mayfield said. “If I had the information, I would’ve said let me go to trial.”

However, Gothamist/WNYC spoke with a variety of experts about new discovery laws and they’re not as certain as Mayfield. For one thing, it’s hard to predict what defendants will do when their attorneys are given more evidence, because the evidence can cut either way. 

“There certainly may be some cases where a defense attorney, who might have otherwise been inclined to take a plea, is going to see something by way of discovery that shows a serious problem with the prosecution's case that they otherwise would not have been aware of, that would steer them away from a plea,” explained George Grasso, supervising judge of Bronx Criminal Court. “And then on the other side of the coin, there will be cases where a defense attorney looks at the discovery and says this looks like a rock solid case. And the plea offer seems pretty good.”

Either way, Karen Friedman Agnifilo, Chief Assistant District Attorney of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, said justice will be served. “If it's a case that should plead a little earlier and it'll be more knowing and voluntary, that will be a good thing,” she said.

District attorneys have problems with the new law. They worry they’ll have to disclose sensitive information about victims and witnesses. They also say it will be expensive to implement, because they’ll need faster access to crime lab reports, body camera footage, and databases.

The city is planning to spend an additional $75 million to help the police department, public defenders, and prosecutors meet the law’s new requirements, with almost half that amount going to the district attorneys' offices.

The state’s Office of Court Administration has not conducted any studies on the impact discovery reform will have on trials. Insha Rahman, director of strategy and new initiatives at the Vera Institute of Justice, said “nothing suggests more trials, or fewer pleas, but there is a sense that overall there is more transparency and efficiency in the pretrial process.”

She said this was the conclusion of a study comparing North Carolina, which has enacted discovery reform, with Virgina, which has not.

Chris Pisciotta, the attorney in charge of the Legal Aid Society’s Staten Island trial office, agreed it’s hard to know whether the law will lead to more trials. In his own experience, he said obtaining information is always helpful.

“I can advocate now for my client, which is what my job is,” he said. “And more often, based on my experience, I’m able to end up with a just and fair resolution of the case without going to trial.”

This is why even if the law doesn’t lead to more trials, he said it will still accomplish its goal of ensuring people know their rights and don’t feel pressured to plea. 

Defense attorneys do expect the reform will make a big difference in Queens. Since 1996, the Queens district attorney’s office has had a policy in which those accused of felonies must decide if they’ll negotiate plea deals before there’s a grand jury indictment, meaning within six days of arraignment. If they wait until after the indictment they can’t plea bargain. Supporters of this policy said it was more efficient, while defense attorneys said it pressured people to take pleas too quickly, before seeing any evidence. But it’s effectively moot now that prosecutors must turn over discovery within 15 days and the newly-elected Queens DA, Melinda Katz, has said she will end that policy.

Throughout the state, pressure on defendants to take a plea will also be reduced by the change in bail laws. Once judges can no longer set bail on most misdemeanor and felony cases, fewer people will be stuck in jail because they can’t afford to get out — a situation that causes defendants like Mayfield to accept an early plea.

But again, that doesn’t necessarily mean all those people will go to trial. That process is expensive and time consuming, notes Tyler Nims, executive director of the Independent Commission on NYC Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, which also supported the new laws. 

“In terms of the impact on how many trials we have, whether New Yorkers are going to have to serve more jury duty or less, it’s hard to say with the scope of the changes that are coming all at once,” Nims said. said. “I think what we do know is we will see faster cases and we will see more fair cases and we will see fewer people awaiting in jail before trial.”

He said that’s a good thing for defendants and victims alike, who all want resolution sooner rather than later.