Prosecutorial misconduct is a leading cause of wrongful conviction, and a new Innocence Project report released today provides evidence that appeals courts in the U.S. do not effectively identify and overturn these injustices.
Although countless instances of misconduct never come to light, the Innocence Project review found that 65 of the first 255 DNA exonerees raised allegations of prosecutorial misconduct in their appeals or in civil suits filed after exoneration. In about half of those cases, courts found either error or misconduct by prosecutors, but judges only found "harmful error" - enough to overturn a conviction - in 12 cases.
The rate of harmful error findings (18%) in wrongful conviction cases is nearly identical to the rate found in a much broader universe of cases examined in a 2003 study by the Center for Public Integrity. These cases weren't innocence cases (meaning they hadn't been overturned based on evidence of innocence), but the courts found harmful error by prosecutors in 17.6% of cases.
Based on this result, the new Innocence Project report finds that "innocent persons raising claims of misconduct on appeal are not much more likely to find relief than presumed guilty persons raising similar claims-a suggestion that raises questions about the ability of the appellate process to correct wrongful convictions."Among the findings in the new Innocence Project report are:
- Sixty-five of the first 255 DNA exoneration cases involved appeals and/or civil lawsuits alleging prosecutorial misconduct.
- In nearly half of those 65 cases, courts found prosecutorial misconduct or error.
- In 18% of the prosecutorial misconduct claims in wrongful conviction cases, courts overturned convictions or found harmful error
- a rate nearly identical to harmful error findings in a larger study of misconduct allegations, including thousands of cases where defendants did not claim innocence.
- Improper argument at trial and withheld evidence of innocence were the forms of misconduct alleged most commonly by wrongfully convicted defendants.
Read the full report here. (PDF)