Cuomo’s chance to curb the spate of wrongful convictions
As pressure for Gov. Andrew Cuomo to sign a proposed bipartisan bill establishing a commission on prosecutorial misconduct continues to mount, yet another glaring example of the bill’s necessity is discovered.
Late last month, a judge in Nassau County overturned the verdict of Jonita Martinez, who was found guilty of assaulting two police officers, after finding that a prosecutor withheld key information from the defense. Martinez was fortunate that this information was discovered but others in her position are not quite as lucky. Each year, across the United States, thousands of individuals are subject to prosecutors concealing evidence from defense teams, intimidating through overcharging and engaging in other forms of misconduct.
Prosecutors wield a great deal of discretionary power when conducting investigations and determining punishments but have very little oversight. For this reason, the proposed commission seeks to bridge this gap. Similar to the Commission on Judicial Conduct, members of the proposed commission are appointed by the governor, legislative leaders and the chief justice. In addition to the power to conduct investigations, the commission also summarizes their findings in annual reports. Oversight is particularly important for New York, a state ranked fourth highest for eventual exonerations by the National Registry of Exonerations.
Such problems, however, extend nationwide. A particularly pervasive form of misconduct involves the hiding of exculpatory evidence, also known as Brady evidence, that may help to exonerate a suspect. As a system based on procedure, the legitimacy of our adversarial criminal justice system depends upon the protection of rights and the following of existing guidelines. Thus by shirking their ethical obligations, prosecutors trample on the rights of defendants. Indeed, the suppression of evidence has proven so rampant within the system that one judge lamented, “Brady violations [had] reached epidemic proportions in recent years.”
Indeed, from 2004 to 2008, the Innocence Project identified approximately 660 instances of prosecutorial error ormisconduct from examining court documents in just five states (Arizona, California, Texas, New York and Pennsylvania).
In another case, a Supreme Judicial Court Justice in Amherst, Massachusetts, overturned an estimated 11,000 convictions due to misconduct on the part of an Amherst drug lab technician and two state prosecutors.
As these abuses come to light, prosecutors can be excruciatingly slow to inform impacted individuals of errors that may exonerate them. In addition to this, judges consistently uphold cases involving a prosecutor’s misconduct. However, when judges merely reprimand prosecutors without reversing decisions, they fail to disincentive these acts.
What’s more, the imagined scenes of courtroom debate that largely dominate the public’s idea of our judicial system are exceedingly rare. Currently, almost every case—97% of federal convictions—is handled exclusively through plea bargaining, which further imbalances an already asymmetrical power dynamic against the accused.
Through techniques like withholding exculpatory evidence and overcharging, a dishonest prosecutor can coerce innocent individuals into taking plea bargains out of fear of harsher consequences. In this way, rather than to hold those who make mistakes accountable, our system often forces innocent individuals to shoulder the cost of prosecutorial misconduct.
And the costs are truly tremendous.
Even brief stints in correctional facilities place an individual at increased risk for losing housing, employment or their family. For others, involvement in the system severely hampers future employment, public assistance and educational opportunities.
Unfortunately, many people are not properly prepared for the penalties attached with the “criminal” or “convict” label. Once an individual pleads guilty, regardless of their innocence, they have little recourse to escape the consequences. To make matters worse, the process for seeking redress can be filled with resistance and riddled with massive delays.
Beyond individual suffering, wrongful convictions pack a powerful punch for taxpayers. In Texas alone, one analysis found that 45 wrongful convictions and the imprisonment of innocent individuals amounted to $8.6 million in cost for taxpayers.
Although not noteworthy for prosecutors, simple “errors” can have profound impact, stifling the liberty and future potential of innocent people. We simply must do better and in order to do so, someone needs to be held accountable for these mistakes.
Currently, prosecutors operate within an insulated environment where they behave freely with little fear of repercussion. As Joseph Digenova, former US Attorney has stated, “career prosecutors believe that nobody can touch them.” While many work tirelessly and commit their lives to upholding the principles of our system, the current mechanisms and disciplinary structures fail to properly address and disincentivize abuses of power. An often quoted New Yorker once proclaimed that “with great power comes great responsibility.” In considering whether or not to sign the prosecutorial misconduct bill, Cuomo has the opportunity to make these words a reality.