Misconduct, Misconduct, Misconduct. For Prosecutors, It's Been a Tough Couple of Weeks in the News

One half of the PSLawNet Blog Team used to work in civil legal services.  Both during and after law school, I hung out with a lot of other folks who were going the nonprofit route, and also did much of my socializing with the public defender types.  I’m aware that some folks perceive that a huge gap – whether moral, ideological, political, or some other -al – exists between prosecutors and defenders. 

I’ve always had trouble seeing it that way (although there is of course adversarial tension between the two camps).  I see both prosecutors and PDs as necessary counterbalances in the pursuit of justice.  And even though they may be driven by different priorities, at the end of the day I think prosecutors and defenders wish to preserve and even improve the system of justice that we all rely on to keep communities safe but also to preserve civil liberties.  And I know a lot of lawyers feel the same way, because they’ve crossed from one side of the courtroom battle lines to the other – and sometimes back again.

So, the PSLawNet Blog has a lot of respect for the work of prosecutors and the substantial responsibilities they shoulder.  But, along with bearing the weight of responsibility to the public, they wield an enormous amount of power.  And sometimes it’s not easy to police the prosecutors.  Some recent news coverage would seem to highlight this potential problem.

Last week we covered a USA Today report stemming from a broad-based investigation into prosecutorial misconduct on the federal level.

Federal judges have found 201 cases of DOJ prosecutors violating the law and/or ethics rules between 1998-2010.  USA Today’s foray into prosecutor misconduct reveals that “the abuses have put innocent people in prison, set guilty people free and cost tax payers millions of dollars in legal fees and sanctions.”

Earlier this week, the LA Times covered a report released by the Innocence Project of Northern California.  From the Times:

Hundreds of prosecutors in California — including many in Los Angeles County — have committed misconduct with near impunity as authorities failed to either report or discipline them, according to a report released Monday…. The researchers discovered 707 cases in which state and federal courts and appellate courts found prosecutorial misconduct in opinions issued between 1997 and 2009. Of those, 67 prosecutors committed misconduct in more than one case, including three who committed misconduct four times and two who did so five times.  The authors of the report said most prosecutors follow the law and act ethically, but they criticized the State Bar for disciplining only six prosecutors during the period covered by the study.

 And today, National Law Journal (password may be required) covers Supreme Court arguments in a case stemming from prosecutorial misconduct in New Orleans:

Supreme Court justices on Wednesday appeared ready to give the green light to efforts by a New Orleans man to win compensation for prosecutorial misconduct that put him behind bars for more than two decades for a murder he did not commit.   The Court heard arguments in the case of Connick v. Thompson, in which former New Orleans district attorney Harry Connick argues that his office should not be held liable for what he contends was a single incident of failing to hand over exculpatory evidence to the defense before trial.

Context is important, so it’s worth mentioning that thousands of prosecutors handle thousands and thousands of cases daily.  Nevertheless, knowing the public trust we place in prosecutors and knowing that sometimes only they can hold themselves accountable to act fairly, this recent spate of negative coverage is notable.

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