Courts have ruled that prosecutorial misconduct contributed to the convictions of 32 innocent people in the past three decades, concludes a study by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity. The report, overseen by Steve Weinberg of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, found 2,017 proved cases of prosecutor misconduct in a review of more than 11,000 appellate opinions between 1970 and this year.
The center asserts that “inadvertent error and intentional misconduct permeate many district attorneys’ offices across the antion, month after month, year after year.” Charles Lewis, center director, called prosecutors the “last sacred cow” among public officials, describing them as “pretty much unaccountable.” The study could find only two prosecutors who have been disbarred for misconduct. There are about 30,000 local prosecutors in 2,341 jurisdictions.
Besides the cases of 32 innocent defendants, the study found that 31 innocent defendants were convicted in other cases despite their allegations of misconduct by prosecutors. In those cases, judges dismissed the misconduct allegations or ruled prosecutors committed “harmless error.” DNA evidence exonerated 24 of them.
Weinberg said some of the misconduct might have resulted from a “tremendous pressure to win” convictions. He said that misconduct by judges and defense attorneys also is a problem, but one not studied in the new survey.
District Attorney Joshua Marquis of Astoria, Ore., a board member of the National District Attorneys Association board member, told the Associated Press that the cases cited emerged “from a universe of millions.” The results suggested that the problem was “episodic, not epidemic” and that prosecutors “are and should be subject to a high degree of scrutiny by trial and appellate judges, defendants and defense lawyers, the press and bar associations and ultimately the voters,” Marquis added.