Today, the New York Times published an editorial urging Governor Cuomo to sign the legislation (S2412) that would establish the nation’s first independent commission to investigate prosecutorial misconduct.
“The problem is obvious: Prosecutors don’t like to admit it, but even though most are honest and law-abiding, misconduct in prosecutorial ranks remains all too common,” the editorial reads, providing the background for why such a commission is necessary.
“A review of 250 exonerations in New York since 1989 found that one-third involved prosecutorial misconduct, like tampering with key evidence, withholding evidence from the defendant or coercing a witness to give false testimony.”
The editorial, like many of the recently published articles about the need for Gov. Cuomo to sign the legislation, cites the case of Jabbar Collins, who spent 16 years in prison for a 1994 Brooklyn murder he did not commit. Collins was ultimately exonerated based on the key witness’ recantation of his testimony and evidence that the prosecutor had withheld crucial evidence during the trial.
What happens when a prosecutor breaks the law? Oftentimes: nothing. As the editorial explains, “Since this sort of behavior so often happens behind closed doors, it can be hard to root out and harder to remedy, thanks to Supreme Court rulings that have immunized individual prosecutors, and in most cases their entire offices, from being sued. Even when prosecutors are caught red-handed, they almost never face consequences. In the rare cases when they do, any discipline is usually handled in secret.”
The solution? The bill to establish the prosecutorial accountability commission, which New York lawmakers overwhelmingly passed in June and Gov. Cuomo has until Monday night to sign.
“The commission would have the power to investigate complaints against prosecutors and to compel them to testify and turn over documents,” describes the editorial. “It wouldn’t be able to punish them directly, but it could issue warnings and recommend sanctions, including in extreme cases that the governor remove a prosecutor from office. The commission would consist of 11 members — two appointed by the governor, three by the state’s chief judge and the remainder by legislative leaders of both parties — and it would release the results of its investigations in an annual report.”
And, what are the benefits of holding prosecutors accountable? “Public safety would improve as fewer resources are wasted prosecuting the innocent, and taxpayers wouldn’t be on the hook for so many payouts to the victims of bad prosecutions,” the editorial reads.
If such a commission is to be created in New York State, lawmakers are hopeful it could serve as a model for other states that are seeking to curtail prosecutorial misconduct.
“By signing this bill,” the editorial concludes, “[Gov. Cuomo] would move New York in the right direction, as well as set an important example for the rest of the nation.”