ProPublica Investigates Prosecutorial Misconduct in New York

Innocence Project

April 3, 2013

A new ProPublica special report that analyzed more than a decade’s worth of state and federal court rulings found more than two dozen instances in which New York judges explicitly concluded there had been prosecutorial misconduct. And in nearly every instance, despite convictions being overturned, appellate court disciplinary committees never took action against the prosecutors for their costly errors.

The investigation uncovered only one prosecutor, former Queens assistant district attorney Claude Stuart, who was disciplined for his actions and eventually lost his job after several abuses including withholding evidence from the defense, manipulating evidence and lying to a trial judge. In two of those cases the convictions were overturned.

“It’s an insidious system,” said Marvin Schechter, a defense attorney and chairman of the criminal justice section of the New York State Bar Association. “Prosecutors engage in misconduct because they know they can get away with it.” (Schechter said he was expressing his own opinion, not that of his bar section.)

New York City’s district attorneys disagree and call these errors limited in scope. But in response to those isolated instances, some have gone a step further by establishing internal units that examine claims of abuse. But as long as the abuse goes unchecked, academics and defense lawyers say prosecutors will continue doing what they’re doing.

“If you’re in the Olympics and you’re in a race and you win and then it’s found that you took steroids, they take your medal away,” said Larry Goldman, a former Manhattan prosecutor who is now a defense attorney. “No one says, ‘Oh well, it doesn’t matter if you took steroids, you would’ve won anyway.'”

The obligation to disclose potentially important evidence to defense lawyers has long been a vital part of the criminal justice system, yet the new analysis showed that violations involving withholding evidence were the most common form of serious misconduct by city prosecutors.

The New York State Bar Association has recently taken on the issue of how to define prosecutorial misconduct and what should be done about it as part of a larger initiative to address wrongful convictions. And while state legislators have introduced several bills incorporating the bar association’s ideas, none have gained much traction. The state’s District Attorneys Association has outright opposed them, and other city district attorneys have said they could adversely affect public safety and are unnecessary in light of their own efforts to improve training and oversight.