If you have been following stories of wrongful convictions being overturned, you will notice a trend in many of these stories. That trend has to do with government misconduct.
For many wrongfully convicted people, the original crime must be investigated by someone on the outside in order to try to get a new trial. Often, it takes one person or a team of people who are extraordinarily dedicated to scrutinizing the original investigation.
At that point, there are still often barriers to getting relief for the victim of a wrongful conviction. Often, victims of a wrongful conviction must appeal their cases to the judges who presided over their original trials. This makes it almost impossible for new evidence to be heard, much less original evidence to be considered in a new light.
This was the case for Jason Baldwin and the West Memphis Three and for many of the other guests of the Wrongful Conviction podcast.
This kind of behavior on the part of government employees seeking to convict isn’t misconduct. It’s just evidence of the enormous power prosecutors and judges wield.
However, this power, when coupled with actual misconduct and no oversight, practically guarantees more people will be wrongfully convicted.
Government Misconduct – The Pattern
According to the Innocence Project, DNA exoneration cases have shown a pattern of fraud, negligence, and misconduct by prosecutors and police that has lead to wrongful convictions.
This is not caused by an entire justice system bent on harming people. Most government employees in this position are honest people. Rather, the trend being uncovered is one of law enforcement seeking to secure convictions rather than ensure truth and justice.
In Jason Baldwin’s case, it was necessary for people outside the criminal justice system to investigate the case. What they found was multi-faceted. However, evidence of misconduct was certainly part of it.
For example, if you watch the documentary West of Memphis, you will learn that the knife the district attorney made the case around the knife used to kill and maim the three little boys. That knife was found in the lake behind the trailer park where Jason Baldwin lived.
The Problem with the Evidence
The problem is information for where to find that knife came to searchers from the DA himself. It was only uncovered years later that he knew it was in that lake because Jason Baldwin’s mother told him it was there.
That knife – the one the State of Arkansas “proved” had been used to murder three little boys? It had been in that lake for a year before the boys were killed.
This is just one small instance of government misconduct in criminal trials.
Examples of Government Misconduct in Criminal Trials
Here is a list of some of the others, published by the Innocence Project:
- Employing suggestion when conducting identification procedures.
- Coercing false confessions.
- Lying or intentionally misleading jurors about their observations.
- Failing to turn over exculpatory evidence to prosecutors.
- Providing incentives to secure unreliable evidence from informants.
Common forms of misconduct by prosecutors include:
- Withholding exculpatory evidence from the defense.
- Deliberately mishandling, mistreating or destroying evidence.
- Allowing witnesses they know or should know are not truthful to testify.
- Pressuring defense witnesses not to testify.
- Relying on fraudulent forensic experts.
- Making misleading arguments that overstate the probative value of testimony.
For more background on this issue, download the Northern California Innocence Project report on prosecutorial misconduct.
The Innocence Project also suggests a number of reforms and solutions for this widespread problem, including the establishment of criminal justice reform commissions which have already been formed in some states. These include most notably North Carolina, Pennsylvania, California, Connecticut, and Wisconsin.
In conclusion, the last thing I want to do is suggest that prosecutors are bad. They have a difficult and necessary job. However, if government power has no oversight and is left unchecked, more innocent people will be convicted.
If you know someone who has been accused of a crime they did not commit, it is critical that they consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney. Please contact my office today.