The Innocence Project released a report Tuesday alleging that prosecutors across the country are almost never punished when they withhold evidence or commit other forms of misconduct that land innocent people in prison.
The Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal group that represents people seeking exonerations, examined records in Arizona, California, Texas, New York and Pennsylvania, and interviewed a wide assortment of defense lawyers, prosecutors and legal experts.
In each state, researchers examined court rulings from 2004 through 2008 in which judges found that prosecutors had committed violations such as mischaracterizing evidence or suborning perjury. All told, the researchers discovered 660 findings of prosecutorial error or misconduct. In the overwhelming majority of cases, 527, judges upheld the convictions, finding that the prosecutorial lapse did not impact the fairness of the defendant’s original trial. In 133 cases, convictions were thrown out.
Only one prosecutor was disciplined by any oversight authorities, the report asserts.
The report was issued on the anniversary of a controversial Supreme Court ruling for those trying to achieve justice in the wake of wrongful convictions. In a 5–4 decision in the case known as Connick v. Thompson, the court tossed out a $14-million dollar award by a Louisiana jury to John Thompson, a New Orleans man who served 18 years in prison for a murder and robbery he did not commit.
The majority ruled that while the trial prosecutors had withheld critical evidence of Thompson’s likely innocence – blood samples from the crime scene – the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s office could not be found civilly liable for what the justices essentially determined was the mistake of a handful of employees. The decision hinged on a critical finding: that the District Attorney’s office, and the legal profession in general, provides sufficient training and oversight for all prosecutors.