Misconduct by prosecutors in pursuing criminal defendants, even when it leads to wrongful convictions, is seldom punished, according to a study released Monday of hundreds of cases in California state and federal courts.
The study by the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara University law school found that punishment was meted out in about 1% of some 600 cases it tracked where prosecutorial misconduct was established.
While the vast majority of law-enforcement officials play by the rules, critics contend that too often prosecutors overstep the bounds of lawful conduct. The violations, critics say, range from withholding exculpatory evidence from defendants to intimidating witnesses and misstating evidence to jurors.
Prosecutorial misconduct “fundamentally perverts the course of justice” and “undermines our trust in the reliability of the justice system,” wrote the study’s authors, Kathleen M. Ridolfi and Maurice Possley.
There have been some high-profile examples of alleged misconduct. Last year, federal criminal cases were dismissed against Ted Stevens, the late U.S. Senator from Alaska, and former top officials of Broadcom Corp. amid judicial findings of misconduct by prosecutors.
Attorney General Eric Holder has ordered new training for federal prosecutors to ensure evidence rules are being followed. Mr. Holder says most of the misconduct problems arise from mistakes and lack of training. He has appointed a senior prosecutor and a team of more than two dozen officials to help push reforms, which include new technology to help manage and track evidence.
Judges, who have complained about the lack of punishment for prosecutorial misconduct, say the reforms are welcome but may not be enough. Judge Emmet Sullivan, whose ruling in the Stevens case prompted Mr. Holder’s actions, has urged a change in the national judicial rules to establish consequences for prosecutors who don’t follow the rules on turning over evidence to defendants. Current rules leave it up to the Justice Department to deal with prosecutors’ actions.
The Justice Department says such a rule change isn’t necessary because it is pushing ahead with the training and other reforms.
The study released Monday said it went through appellate court records of more than 4,000 cases in California between 1997 and 2009 in which misconduct was asserted. Judges dismissed about 3,000 of those claims.
In 707 cases the courts found misconduct, the study said. In 600 of those cases, the researchers obtained the prosecutors’ names. Searching the state bar’s public disciplinary records, they found only six of the prosecutors had been sanctioned. The state bar also “privately reproves attorneys,” but those records aren’t publicly available, the study said.
Sixty-seven prosecutors were cited by a court for misconduct more than once, the study said. Two were cited five times each.
In a written statement, the state bar said prosecutorial misconduct was a “serious issue” that triggered “appropriate action” when necessary. However, the statement added, “the fact that a prosecutor makes an error does not mean the prosecutor has committed misconduct that should result in discipline.”
In California, the study said, judges aren’t required to report misconduct to disciplinary authorities unless the improprieties result in reversal or modification of the conviction. Only 159 of the 707 misconduct cases satisfied that criteria, it said. The study’s authors argued that all misconduct should be reported and investigated.
Originally Posted @ http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748704847104575532340572909432