Panel Discussion at Phoenix School of Law Addresses Prosecutorial Misconduct
Death Row Exoneree John Thompson, who was stripped of a $14 Million Civil Verdict by the Supreme Court, to Headline Event, which will be streamed live at www.prosecutorialoversight.org
Contact: Paul Cates, 212-364-5346, email@example.com
(Phoenix, AZ; April 26, 2012) – Panelists with backgrounds from all aspects of the criminal justice system will address systematic and legal approaches for reducing prosecutorial error and misconduct at a forum tonight at Phoenix School of Law. The event will be headlined by John Thompson who was wrongly convicted and spent 18 years in prison – 14 on death row – because of prosecutorial misconduct. Last year the U.S. Supreme Court stripped Thompson of $14 million in civil damages in a decision granting prosecutors almost complete immunity for their misconduct. Panelists will discuss prosecutorial accountability in the wake of the Supreme Court decision in Connick v. Thompson.
Tonight’s forum is the latest stop of a national tour organized by the Prosecutorial Oversight coalition, which includes Thompson, the Innocence Project; the Veritas Initiative, Northern California Innocence Project’s prosecutorial accountability program; the Innocence Project of New Orleans; Voices of Innocence; and local partner the Arizona Justice Project.
“Prosecutors have tremendous power over our lives. While the vast majority do an admirable job under difficult circumstances, some commit intentional misconduct that leads to grave injustices like in the case of Mr. Thompson,” said Larry Hellman, one of the moderators of the event and founder of the Arizona Justice Project. “Now that the Supreme Court has made it extremely difficult to sue prosecutors civilly, we need to develop systems of accountability for dealing with those prosecutors who violate their legal and ethical obligations.”
To try to access the scope of the problem of prosecutorial misconduct in Arizona, the Veritas Initiative, which issued a groundbreaking report on prosecutorial misconduct in California last year, reviewed all of the published trial and appellate court decisions addressing allegations of prosecutorial misconduct between 2004-2008. To see what, if any, consequences prosecutors face for their misconduct, Veritas looked at Arizona public attorney disciplinary records from 2004 to November 2011.
From 2004 to 2008, Arizona courts found that prosecutors committed error in 20 cases. Of these, the courts upheld the conviction in 15 of the cases, finding that the error was “harmless.” In five of the cases, the court ruled that the error was “harmful” and reversed the conviction. From 2004 until November 2011, three prosecutors were publicly disciplined by State Bar of Arizona, but no disciplinary actions were taken against any of prosecutors for the 20 findings of misconduct identified by the research.
The Prosecutorial Oversight coalition notes that this review doesn’t begin to fully illustrate the scope of the problem. All of the errors identified were of cases where defendants went to trial and had access to an attorney who raised the error on appeal. Prosecutorial misconduct was raised in an additional 21 cases, but the courts declined to directly address the issue. Additionally, many opinions are not in writing and many aren’t published. Furthermore, the distinction between harmful and harmless is problematic because it doesn’t illustrate how serious the misconduct was, merely that the court determined that it wouldn’t have affected the ultimate outcome of the trial.
“The fact that it is so difficult to document the scope of the problem speaks volumes about the lack of accountability for prosecutors,” said Cookie Ridolfi, professor at Santa Clara University School of Law and Executive Director of the Northern California Innocence Project and the Veritas Initiative. “We don’t accept this lack of accountability and oversight for any other government entity where life and liberty are at stake, and there’s no reason we should do so for prosecutors.”
Of the 20 findings of misconduct, half were cases where the prosecutor made improper argument. Other types of misconduct included improper examination and failure to turn over evidence pointing to the defendant’s innocence.
“We are still trying to understand the internal systems of the county, state, and federal prosecutors’ offices for dealing with misconduct. It often takes egregious misconduct for the state bar to even be notified of a need to conduct an investigation into certain ethical violations,” said Lindsey Herf, Co-Director of the Arizona Justice Project. “By having these conversations around the country, we’re hopeful that we come up with some concrete solutions that will make the system more just for everyone.”
The panel at tonight’s forum will be moderated by Herf and Hammond. Panelists will include Thompson; Ridolfi; Ray Krone, an Arizona exoneree who spent 10 years in prison for a murder DNA later proved he didn’t commit; Jim Belanger, a criminal defense lawyer with Coopersmith Schermer & Brockelman PLC and a government investigator; Colin Campbell, a former Arizona trial judge who is now in private practice at Osborn Maledon, P.A.; Paul K. Charlton, a former U.S. Attorney now in private practice at Gallagher & Kennedy, P.A.; Karen Clark, a founding partner at Adams & Clark, PC, with a background in state bar investigations; Keith Swisher, an ethics professor with Phoenix School of Law; John Todd, an attorney in the Arizona Attorney General’s Office.
Additional information about Thompson and the tour, including a live stream of panel discussion and additional information about the Arizona research is available at http://www.prosecutorialoversight.org.