A three-year San Jose Mercury News investigation of the Santa Clara County, Ca., criminal justice system shows a disturbing truth: “A dramatic number of cases were infected with errors by prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges, and those errors were routinely tolerated.” In dozens of cases, the paper said in a series published last week, the errors robbed defendants of their right to a fair trial. In a small number of cases, they led people to be wrongly convicted. The study reveals “a basic truth about how the criminal justice system operates,” said Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor who teaches criminal law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “A lot of sausage gets pushed through that machine. Errors that help the prosecution are common. The uneven nature of criminal justice is a serious concern.”
The newspaper reviewed the records of five years of criminal jury trial appeals decided by the California 6th District Court of Appeal — 727 cases. In addition, the newspaper uncovered about 200 cases of questionable conduct that were not part of the study period. The review established that in 261 of the appellate cases reviewed — more than one in every three — the criminal trial had been marred by questionable conduct that worked against the defendant. In only about one in 20 cases did the defendant win meaningful relief — either a new trial or a significantly reduced sentence — from higher courts. The problems occurred at every phase of a trial, and in every part of the system: prosecutors, defense attorneys, trial and appellate courts.