a post this week on Reason Magazine's website
, Radley Balko writes about the cases of people from Massachusetts to Florida to Mississippi convicted of crimes they didn't commit based in part on misconduct by prosecutors. Most of the prosecutors he profiles are still in their offices today; some are now judges.
Prosecutorial misconduct is a major cause of wrongful convictions. More than 25% of the first 240 DNA exonerees cited prosecutorial misconduct in appeals or civil lawsuits. In 38% of those cases, prosecutors were alleged to have withheld evidence that could have proven innocence.
The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments next week in the case of
Pottawattamie County v. McGhee
, in which two Iowa men filed a civil rights lawsuit against prosecutors who allegedly coerced false testimony to convict them of crimes they didn't commit. Prosecutors in the case have claimed that they are protected by absolute immunity, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit disagreed, finding that prosecutors had violated the men's right to due process.
The case of Ralph Armstrong is an example of how withholding evidence and other misconduct can block justice. Armstrong, an Innocence Project client, served more than 28 years behind bars in Wisconsin for a murder evidence shows he didn't commit. He had been in prison for 14 years when a woman called the prosecutor to tell him Armstrong's brother had confessed to the murder. This phone call was not shared with defense attorneys.
In 2006, when Armstrong had been in prison for 25 years, prosecutors violated a court order and conducted secret DNA tests on evidence in the case. The results were inconclusive and the evidence was consumed, meaning no further testing could ever be conducted. In dismissing the case against Armstrong, a state judge wrote that the prosecutor's actions "stemmed from a series of conscious decisions that had very adverse consequences."
"This is a particularly chilling case of prosecutorial misconduct," Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck said after Armstrong was cleared. "Even after the state Supreme Court threw out Ralph Armstrong's conviction based on evidence of his innocence, the prosecutor continued to withhold yet more evidence of his innocence."