Prosecutorial misconduct was a factor in 65 of the 258 DNA exonerations nationwide. Those cases involved documented appeals and/or civil suits addressing prosecutorial misconduct with 31 cases resulting in court findings of error and 12 cases leading to reversals. That misconduct ranged from suggestiveness in identification procedures, withholding evidence from the defense, deliberate mishandling or destruction of evidence, coercion of false confessions and the use of unreliable government informants or snitches.
Judges have long warned prosecutors about behavior that prevents giving suspects a fair trial and as a result, Congress passed a law in 1997 to combat prosecutorial misconduct.
Since that law was enacted, USA TODAY documented over 200 criminal cases where judges determined that federal prosecutors – described by USA Today as the “most elite and powerful law enforcement officials” in the nation — violated laws or ethic rules.
In case after case during that time, judges blasted prosecutors for “flagrant” or “outrageous” misconduct. They caught some prosecutors hiding evidence, found others lying to judges and juries, and said others had broken plea bargains.
Such abuses, intentional or not, doubtless infect no more than a small fraction of the tens of thousands of criminal cases filed in the nation’s federal courts each year. But the transgressions USA TODAY identified were so serious that, in each case, judges threw out charges, overturned convictions or rebuked prosecutors for misconduct. And each has the potential to tarnish the reputation of the prosecutors who do their jobs honorably.
There has been a major increase in the number of complaints judges have made about prosecutorial misconduct since 2001. Back then, there were 42 complaints. Last year, there were 61. Over the past 12 years, USA TODAY was only able to identify one federal prosecutor who was barred, even temporarily, from practicing law for such misconduct.
The investigation found 47 cases in which defendants were either exonerated or set free after the violations surfaced.
That is exactly what happened to Nino Lyons of Orlando, Florida. The jurors who found Lyons guilty of drug trafficking after hearing testimony from multiple witnesses were never informed about vital evidence that could have pointed toward his innocence.
According to USA TODAY, the federal prosecutors never informed the jury that a convict who claimed he purchased hundreds of pounds of cocaine from Lyons barely identified his photograph. Prosecutors also promised early release to other prisoners in exchange for their cooperation. Lyons spent nearly three years in prison before his case was thrown out because of prosecutorial misconduct.
As a result of prosecutorial misconduct, guilty people remain at large or face a lesser consequence and taxpayers ultimately finance the unethical behavior of the Justice Department.
Learn about government and prosecutorial misconduct here