Prosecutors Acting Badly
- March 28, 2012
- Jerod Gunsberg
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Sometimes people are repeatedly surprised by the same thing. It happens over and over again, and yet people are shocked as if they are experiencing it for the first time.
That’s the first thing that crossed my mind when I heard that 60 Minutes had reported about Michael Morton, who had spent 25 years in prison for a murder that DNA evidence later showed he did not commit. The most surprising aspect of Mr. Morton’s odyssey through our criminal justice system is not that he was exonerated by DNA evidence. As documented by the Innocence Project, that has happened more than 100 times. The supposedly shocking of Michael Morton’s ordeal is that he was the victim of prosecutorial misconduct. Specifically, the prosecutors didn’t turn over evidence that tended to show that Morton wasn’t guilty.
As a criminal defense lawyer, I interact with prosecutors, both state and federal, on a daily basis. There is no question that a vast majority of them are honest and hardworking. But we should stop being surprised that some prosecutors hide evidence or don’t otherwise live up to their responsibilities. The criminal justice system is set up so prosecutors have a tremendous amount of control over what happens to those who are arrested. Prosecutors are often much more influential than judges, who try a small percentage of cases. It can be very tempting for prosecutors to cut corners to help convict someone who they already “know” is guilty.
Too often, prosecutors win cases because the accused lacks the resources to mount a full defense. This is one reason why it’s so important to have an experienced criminal defense lawyer on your side. That is one way to make prosecutorial misconduct less likely. I have no illusions that my mere presence forces prosecutors to be more diligent than they otherwise would be. I firmly believe that most prosecutors are diligent.
But I do wish that we would stop being surprised when we hear that some prosecutors acted badly or cheated the system. It’s both a rare event and, given the number of cases that go through the system, one that happens all the time.