Innocence Project Blasts Lack of Consequences from Prosecutorial Misconduct
by Derek Gilna
The Innocence Project has published a report that examines the lack of consequences for prosecutors who engage in misconduct resulting in the conviction and imprisonment of innocent defendants. The non-profit organization examined court records in Arizona, California, Texas, New York and Pennsylvania for the years 2004 to 2008.
The report, released in March 2016, identified “660 instances of prosecutorial error or misconduct,” but in 527 of those cases “judges upheld the conviction, finding that the prosecutorial lapse did not impact the fairness of the defendant’s original trial.” However, in the other 133 cases the convictions were overturned.
In only one case, the Innocence Project report said, was a prosecutor disciplined. Given such statistics, it is no wonder that prosecutors feel little or no pressure to follow the rules, such as their obligation to disclose exculpatory evidence to defense attorneys.
The sole case where a prosecutor was disciplined occurred in Brooklyn, New York – a city that has had an epidemic of wrongful convictions costing millions in settlements. That prosecutor, Claude N. Stuart, was involved in three wrongful prosecutions and his law license was suspended in 2005 due to his serial misconduct; New York’s appellate division court denied his request to reinstate his license in 2010. Stuart’s boss, Brooklyn DA Charles J. Hynes, also paid a price, losing his reelection campaign largely due to the spate of well-publicized wrongful convictions.
Unfortunately, the appellate courts that reviewed the cases in which prosecutorial misconduct occurred made virtually no referrals to attorney licensing authorities. In the handful of incidents where an investigation was launched, prosecutors who committed misconduct were almost never disciplined.
The report also addressed the case of Connick v. Thompson, 131 S.Ct. 1350 (2011), in which the U.S. Supreme Court reversed a jury award of $14 million for a wrongful conviction that resulted from prosecutorial misconduct by the New Orleans District Attorney’s Office. [See: PLN, Nov. 2014, p.1; Aug. 2011, p.30]. The Court’s reasoning was that the District Attorney’s office and the legal profession itself provided sufficient oversight of prosecutors – a decision that continues to puzzle most legal analysts given the well-documented scope of prosecutorial misconduct.
ProPublica, an independent non-profit news agency, conducted its own study of prosecutorial misconduct in New York, and in 2013 examined over ten years’ worth of state and federal court rulings. They found over 20 examples of cases where judges had ruled city prosecutors were guilty of serious misconduct. Although no prosecutors other than Stuart have lost their law licenses, wrongfully convicted former prisoners have successfully sued the city for millions of dollars. [See, e.g., PLN, Dec. 2015, p.54].
The most recent example of prosecutorial misconduct resulting in a wrongful conviction occurred in Los Angeles. On March 16, 2017, Andrew Leander Wilson, 62, was released from prison after serving 32 years for a murder he did not commit; prosecutors agreed he did not receive a fair trial. Loyola Law School’s Project for the Innocent spearheaded efforts to prove Wilson’s innocence. The prosecution allegedly withheld evidence that would have undercut the credibility of the only eyewitness, and the district attorney’s office has said it will not attempt to retry the case. A hearing is scheduled for May 3, 2017 on Wilson’s claim of actual innocence.
Sources: “Prosecutorial Oversight: A National Dialogue in the Wake of Connick v. Thompson,” Innocence Project (March 2016); www.propublica.org; www.heraldnet.com