Our colleagues over at the Wrongful Convictions blog recently did a must-read blogpost summarizing some of the key issues surrounding prosecutorial misconduct.
The post provides a great overview of the issue, using data from the National Registry of Exonerations showing that of the 873 exonerations from 1989 – 2012, 42% had official misconduct as a cause. Official misconduct is even more of a contributing factor in homicide cases, with 56% of exonerations involving findings of misconduct. This misconduct includes both police and prosecutors, but it’s a useful statistic to document the widespread nature of the problem.
It’s helpful to look at quantitative numbers like these or the numbers generated by the Northern California Innocence project in their seminal study of prosecutorial misconduct, but it’s also important to remember that prosecutorial accountability is a significant issue not only because misconduct occurs with alarming frequency, but also because of the catastrophic nature of the harm that is done when trials are fundamentally unfair.
Wrongful Convictions’ blogpost makes excellent recommendations, including the need for more data and increased public awareness of the issue. In addition, it’s clear that to improve problems with prosecutorial misconduct, it’s essential to use and enforce existing mechanisms for accountability.
This means that more ethics complaints need to be filed with state bars when prosecutorial misconduct is suspected. State bars, in turn, need to be held accountable when they aren’t responsive or fair in their consideration of these complaints. Decisions about holding prosecutors accountable when they break the law should not be made in secret, behind closed doors, with no one watching. That’s why the Open File is always interested in covering complaints filed with state bars in cases of suspected prosecutorial misconduct, and we will continue to do so.
Posts about the crisis of prosecutorial misconduct like Wrongful Convictions’ are vitally needed to get this important conversation started.