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Understanding prosecutorial misconduct

In 1983, two teenagers were accused of rape and murder. The Huffington Post reported that the two young men, both mentally handicapped, admitted to the crime but later recanted the confessions and stated that they were coerced. However, a jury found the young men guilty, and they spent three decades in prison before their convictions were overturned.

In addition to DNA exonerating the men, an investigation found that there was substantial evidence of prosecutorial misconduct. During the trial, the prosecutor asked jury members to simulate the victim’s death by holding their breath. Such an argument is just one example of many ways that prosecuting attorneys here in Minnesota and elsewhere may cross the line.

Defining misconduct

The Center for Prosecutor Integrity released a report in 2013 that outlined a number of ways that misconduct can manifest during a criminal case, including the following:

  • Pressuring witnesses for the defense to not testify
  • Misleading the jury or otherwise making improper statements
  • Using forensic experts that are fraudulent
  • Withholding or otherwise delaying the release of exculpatory evidence
  • Charging someone with additional and unnecessary offenses
  • Destroying or mishandling evidence on purpose

Prosecutors could also permit witnesses to testify when they know they are not telling the truth.

Why it occurs

While it is hard to gauge exactly how rampant misconduct is, the National Registry of Exonerations estimates that the behavior is responsible for roughly 43 percent of wrongful convictions. Someone may be tempted to commit misconduct in order to win a large case and receive favorable media coverage. Additionally, prosecutors may receive a promotion, an appointment to judgeship or other career boost if they are successful, adding pressure to win every case.

The consequences

Even when the behavior is identified, little may be done to rectify the issue. The Center for Prosecutor Integrity reports that in a number of studies analyzing more than 3,600 instances of misconduct, in only 2 percent were there any sanctions brought against the offender, and in only a quarter of those cases was the prosecutor disbarred.

Dishonesty and deception from prosecutors adds a burden to taxpayers who take on the cost of housing the wrongfully convicted. Even more disturbing is that when a defendant is wrongfully convicted due to prosecutorial misconduct, the road to exoneration is filled with delays and resistance. The behavior potentially ruins the lives of people who may spend years and even decades behind bars for a crime they did not commit. It is imperative that the people charged with the task of protecting the integrity of the justice system also abide by the law.

Max Keller has won countless jury trial cases involving misdemeanors and felonies, sex crimes, and DWI’s. He is a member of the Minnesota Society for Criminal Justice, which only allows the top 50 criminal defense attorneys in the state as members. Max is a frequent speaker at CLE’s and is often asked for advice by other defense attorneys across Minnesota.

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