In addition to the COVID-19 pandemic, messy politics, and social movements, the year 2020 has continued to highlight the issue of systemic police and prosecutorial misconduct in America. A recent report from the National Registry of Exonerations put a spotlight on the role of government misconduct in wrongful convictions. The researchers who authored the study reviewed more than 2,400 cases across the country and produced some alarming statistics regarding our justice system.
The authors also found that misconduct is less likely to occur if systemic issues are addressed and corrected. However, if issues are not resolved, innocent people are more likely to be condemned. Keep reading to learn more about police and prosecutorial misconduct, including how it affects the everyday life of American citizens.
What is police misconduct?
When a law enforcement officer violates the Constitution or an individual's constitutional rights, police misconduct occurs. A wide variety of actions and abuses of power fall under the umbrella of police or law enforcement misconduct, including false arrests, police perjury, and sexual misconduct. A law enforcement officer who acts in a way that is unethical or illegal while performing his or her official duties can be prosecuted for misconduct.
The news today is largely focused on police brutality, also known as excessive use of force. While police misconduct can certainly include physical actions, there are many types of misconduct. Racial profiling, targeting a person based on their race instead of individual suspicion, is another commonly cited form of police misconduct. Other forms of misconduct can include police perjury, witness tampering, filing false police reports and unwarranted search and seizure.
What is prosecutorial misconduct?
Misconduct is not only limited to law enforcement officers. If a prosecutor acts in a way that is illegal or unethical, prosecutorial misconduct occurs. Like police officers, prosecutors hold a great deal of trust and power. They often work in conjunction with the police to build a case and bring it to trial. Prosecutors are responsible for seeking justice and staying within the rules of evidence and the law. Prosecutors should not seek to “win” cases, rather the focus should be on seeking justice. Seeking justice means following the evidence wherever it leads, rather than bending the facts to fit a predetermined outcome.
There are many ways prosecutorial misconduct may occur. In some cases, prosecutors fail to turn over crucial pieces of evidence. Information or evidence that could exonerate a suspect may be hidden to gain a conviction. The prosecutor is legally obligated to turn over all evidence to the defense even if he or she believes it will negatively impact their case. Unfortunately, prosecutorial misconduct does occur, and the price of that misconduct is paid by innocent men and women who are wrongfully convicted.
Recent Findings on Government Misconduct
Researchers from institutions like the Newkirk Center for Science at the University of California, Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School, and the Michigan State University of Law recently published a report on government misconduct in America. The report is titled “Government Misconduct and Convicting the Innocent: The Role of Prosecutors, Police and other Law Enforcement,” and examines more than 2,400 cases of wrongful convictions.
The findings of the study from the National Registry of Exonerations are sobering to say the least. Corruption or negligence by the police, prosecutors, or other government workers were involved in 54% of official misconduct. Researchers found that staggering numbers of individuals who were wrongfully convicted lacked the proper resources and competent legal counsel. They also found that African Americans suffer specifically from government misconduct.
Exonerations that involved African American defendants showed higher rates of misconduct than exonerations of white defendants. The difference can be seen starkly in murder cases involving the death penalty. Misconduct played a role in 87% of exonerations for black defendants and 68% for white defendants.
The study identified five classifications of misconduct, including witness tampering, misconduct in interrogations, fabricating evidence, false crimes, and false confessions. Misconduct in interrogations was the most common, occurring in 57% of exonerations. Misconduct at trial was found in 23% of exonerations, with perjury occurring by both law enforcement and prosecutors.
In 73% of exoneration cases, prosecutors concealed evidence that was considered exculpatory, and police concealed this type of evidence in 33% of all cases. Impeachment evidence undermining testimony from prosecution witnesses was concealed in 80% of cases with concealed exculpatory evidence. In 26% of all cases reviewed, evidence of misconduct by law enforcement officials or prosecutors was concealed.
The Impact of Government Misconduct
To understand the impact of government misconduct, consider the case of Michael Morton. In 1987, Morton was convicted of killing his wife. The case was prosecuted by Ken Anderson, the District Attorney of Williamson County in Texas. The real killer was identified in 2011, and Morton was exonerated after 24 years in prison due to a wrongful conviction.
Why did Morton have to spend so much time in jail when the real killer was found by DNA testing of evidence that had already been collected? In addition to the wasted years Morton spent in prison, the real killer went on to kill again in 1988. These tragedies were preventable, but misconduct got in the way. For much more on this please see the innocence project.
Anderson and the District Attorney's office were able to prevent DNA testing on a bandana found near the crime scene. This evidence eventually went on to exonerate Morton and identify the actual killer. While Morton lived out a large portion of his life behind bars for a crime he did not commit, Anderson served four days in jail after pleading guilty to contempt of court. He was also disbarred and resigned his position as a judge.
The unfairness and injustice that comes with misconduct is clear in Morton's case. Unfortunately, he is not the only individual to suffer at the hands of law enforcement or prosecutors who choose to act outside of the law. These actions lead to lives ruined, families torn apart, real criminals walking free, and even wrongful deaths.
Police and prosecutorial misconduct are serious issues impacting American citizens today, just as they have for many decades. Bringing systemic injustice and misconduct to light is the first step in overcoming it. The report from the National Registry of Exonerations proves that misconduct is all too common and ruins the lives of too many innocent Americans.
The first step in combatting official misconduct is to have a competent attorney who can spot these issues. We are here for you day or night to answer your questions about your criminal case.