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Government Misconduct

 

Evidence of fraud, negligence or misconduct by prosecutors or police is disturbingly not uncommon among the DNA exoneration cases.


Michael MortonMichael Morton in court the day of his exoneration. (Photo: Rebecca Rodriguez)

The Wrongful Conviction of Michael Morton

When Michael Morton’s wife Christine was found murdered in their bed the morning of August 13, 1986, police immediately began investigating him as a suspect. Michael had left a note for his wife before leaving the house for work at 5:30 that morning, expressing his disappointment with the fact that she fell asleep on him the night prior but ending with the words “I love you.” Prosecutors convicted Michael of his wife’s murder on the theory that he became so enraged by her failure to have sex with him on his birthday that he bludgeoned her to death.

Decades later, DNA testing on crime scene evidence cleared Michael and implicated another man in his wife’s murder. More troubling was the discovery that prosecutors had purposefully withheld key evidence from Michael’s defense team at the original trial, evidence that might have prevented his conviction and 25 year wrongful incarceration in the first place. This evidence included police records of a conversation with his mother-in-law where she said Michael’s three-year-old son witnessed Christine’s murder and said it was “a monster” not Michael who committed the crime. The suppression of this evidence lead to a rare prosecution of the district attorney involved in the case, ending his legal career.

>Read his story


In cases of wrongful convictions uncovered by DNA testing, evidence of negligence, fraud or misconduct by prosecutors or police departments is disturbingly not uncommon.

CONTENTS: Overview | Reforms and Solutions | Resources

Overview

Misconduct by Government Actors

Some wrongful convictions are caused by honest mistakes. But in far too many cases, the very people who are responsible for ensuring truth and justice -- law enforcement officials and prosecutors -- lose sight of these obligations and instead focus solely on securing convictions.

While many law enforcement officers and prosecutors are honest and trustworthy, criminal justice is a human endeavor and the possibility for negligence, misconduct and corruption exists. Even if one officer of every thousand is dishonest, wrongful convictions will continue to occur.

DNA exonerations have exposed official misconduct at every level and stage of a criminal investigation.

Common forms of misconduct by law enforcement officials include:

  • 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 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.

Reforms and Solutions

Necessary Oversight

We need to find solutions to fix these problems. One way to put checks on the enormous power of prosecutors and law enforcement officials would be to establish criminal justice reform commissions to study wrongful convictions and advocate for changes in the system.

Commissions in several states have already begun to recommend and help implement improvements in investigations, lab operations, defense, prosecution and judicial review necessary to help ensure the integrity of the criminal process.

Effective commissions include experts from all parts of the criminal justice system — including crime victims and concerned members of the public. These varied perspectives, combined with public and official support, can lead to true, lasting reforms.

Successful Commissions Already at Work

Eleven states have formed criminal justice reform commission to examine causes of wrongful convictions and reforms to prevent injustice.

  • The 30-member North Carolina Actual Innocence Commission was created by the state’s Chief Justice in 2002. The commission has focused on the causes of wrongful conviction and is considered a national model for effectiveness and reform.
  • In Pennsylvania, where nine men have been proven innocent by DNA testing in recent years, the state Senate created an Innocence Commission in 2006.
  • California, Connecticut and Wisconsin have also created commissions to study the causes of wrongful conviction, and in 2003, the Illinois legislature passed into law 85 recommendations made by a special commission created there to study capital punishment and create safeguards against all wrongful convictions.

Read case studies of the eleven states with criminal justice commissions.

Resources

Join the Movement

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Related content
Criminal Justice Reform Commissions
The Need for a Federal Criminal Justice Commission
Criminal Justice Reform Commissions: Case Studies