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6 Reasons We Need Prosecutorial Accountability
By Innocence Staff
While most prosecutors respect their ethical and legal obligations, far too many innocent people have been wrongly convicted as a result of prosecutorial misconduct.
- A survey conducted by the Innocence Project and the Veritas Initiative looked at five diverse states over a five-year period and identified 660 cases in which courts found prosecutorial misconduct. Of these, only one prosecutor was disciplined.
- Data shows the majority of prosecutorial misconduct findings by courts are ruled harmless. This means a court has concluded it wouldn’t have changed the case’s outcome had the error or misconduct not been committed. Such rulings minimize the problem, signaling to prosecutors that error or misconduct is acceptable.
- Regardless of the extent of a prosecutorial error or misconduct—from the simplest mistakes to intentional withholding of evidence that is favorable to the defendant—these actions undermine accuracy in criminal trials and threaten to create wrongful convictions at unacceptably high rates.
- Under current U.S. law, prosecutors are almost entirely immune from civil lawsuits even when they intentionally violate the laws. Existing grievance processes in state after state are simply ineffective and inefficient, often permitting “serial offenders” to continue their misconduct. Additionally, many courts and defense counsel are reluctant to refer even serious cases of apparent misconduct to existing grievance entities, in part because the allegations take so long to resolve, and in part because those who might otherwise refer such cases lack confidence that these complaints will be investigated fully and fairly under the current system.
- This makes oversight by public agencies and the courts all the more critical.
- There are numerous opportunities to improve prosecutorial oversight and accountability through the creation of independent oversight entities as New York has just done with groundbreaking legislation. Seizing these opportunities would improve the quality of not only prosecutorial conduct but also the criminal justice system overall.