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