Evidence of fraud, negligence or misconduct by prosecutors or police is disturbingly not uncommon among the DNA exoneration cases.
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.
In cases of wrongful convictions uncovered by DNA testing, evidence of negligence, fraud or misconduct by prosecutors or police departments is disturbingly not uncommon.
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:
Common forms of misconduct by prosecutors include:
For more background on this issue, download the Northern California Innocence Project report on prosecutorial misconduct.
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.
Eleven states have formed criminal justice reform commission to examine causes of wrongful convictions and reforms to prevent injustice.
Read case studies of the eleven states with criminal justice commissions.