Sept 22, 2019 (NEW YORK) – The Associated Press, the Daily News L.P., the Hearst Corporation, The New York Times Company, Newsday LLC, and ProPublica Inc. have filed an amicus brief in support of the Innocence Project’s lawsuit against the Second Department Disciplinary Committee to open its files related to former Suffolk County District Attorney Glenn Kurtzrock’s egregious prosecutorial misconduct.
Kurtzrock was referred to the Grievance Committee of New York’s Tenth Judicial District for action over two years ago, after he was fired from his position as an Assistant DA in Suffolk County for committing egregious prosecutorial misconduct in several murder cases. Yet there has been no public report of any disciplinary action against him. In the meantime, Kurtzrock continues to practice law in Suffolk County as a defense attorney, touting his experience as a “former homicide prosecutor.”
“We are gratified that these well-respected news organizations have joined with us to bring greater public access to New York’s attorney discipline process, given the overwhelming evidence of prosecutorial misconduct present in Kurtzrock’s case,” said Nina Morrison, Senior Litigation Counsel with the Innocence Project. “It’s simply unfathomable that the proceedings against Kurtzrock continue to drag on without resolution more than two-and-one-half years after his public firing. New Yorkers deserve to know why it’s taken so long, and should be able to view the proceedings from this point forward.”
In their brief, the media companies urge New York’s highest Court — the Court of Appeals — to grant the Innocence Project’s motion to hear this lawsuit, and to enter an order opening the records of Kurtzrock’s disciplinary actions to the public. The amici news organizations have highlighted that “[w]hen misconduct by New York-licensed prosecutors becomes the subject of professional disciplinary proceedings, amici have a strong interest in ensuring that the laws governing those proceedings are interpreted by courts in a manner that facilitates public access and promotes transparency and accountability.”
Kurtzrock was fired in May 2017 by the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office after it was discovered that he withheld exculpatory evidence in the murder trial of Messiah Booker. As the DA’s office has continued to review Kurtzrock’s cases, other acts of misconduct have been discovered. In total, there have so far been five cases — including Booker’s — in which murder charges have been thrown out as a result of Kurtzrock’s illegal suppression of evidence.
Most notably, in February 2018, a man named Shawn Lawrence was exonerated of murder and freed from a sentence of 75 years to life after the DA’s office discovered that Kurtzrock had concealed as many as 45 different items of exculpatory evidence at trial. The judge who presided over Lawrence’s exoneration called the misconduct “absolutely stunning.”
The Innocence Project’s lawsuit seeks to unseal the records of the Grievance Committee’s investigation of Kurtzrock. According to the filing, “[t]he subject matter of the inquiry — Kurtzrock’s blatant prosecutorial misconduct in a series of murder cases, which resulted in his sudden, mid-trial resignation from the DA’s office in May 2017— had already been widely reported … as had the identity of Kurtzrock’s victims. The public interest in the progress of the Grievance Committee’s inquiry is significant.”
In New York—unlike many other states—attorney disciplinary proceedings are conducted in secret unless and until the Appellate Division imposes disciplinary sanctions at the end of the process. However, New York law allows for public access to such proceedings where “good cause” exists to lift the veil of secrecy. The Innocence Project and the amici media companies argue that Kurtzrock’s case is precisely the sort for which this “good cause” exception was designed.
In July, the Appellate Division, Second Department (which itself oversees the Grievance Committee) dismissed the lawsuit in a brief order that provided no explanation for its decision. The Innocence Project and the amici media organizations are now asking New York’s highest court to hear the case, citing the important legal issues at stake.
The Innocence Project is being represented in the lawsuit pro bono by Gregory S. Diskant of Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP. The media companies are being represented by Ira M. Feinberg of Hogan Lovells US LLP, also on a pro bono basis.
ABOUT THE INNOCENCE PROJECT
The Innocence Project, founded in 1992 by Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck at Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, exonerates the wrongly convicted through DNA testing and reforms the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.