As the lead prosecutor of the case, it was his decision to do the right thing or continue winning cases. He had two options: disclose information that could possibly clear the defendant or cover it up and continue adding to his list of convictions. On the outside looking in it’s a simple decision, do the right thing. Seeking true justice is more important than winning…right? However, the small voice of reason in his head lost the battle. He decided not only to hide exculpatory evidence, but to also make deals that promised inmates early release in exchange for false testimonies. This poor and reckless decision cost an innocent man three years of his life.
No, that was not the plot of a Law and Order episode or an excerpt from a John Grisham novel, it is the real life story of Nino Lyons, and a small look at how a prosecutor can behave unjustly.
The recent release of Duke Law’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic exoneree LaMonte Armstrong has put the spotlight back on prosecutorial misconduct, and there are many questions still awaiting responses. With the number of exonerees growing each year, it’s quite apparent that our legal system has many flaws. While many attorneys are aware of these issues, the general public is sometimes left in the dark about what causes a prosecutor to hide evidence and arrange deals with criminals.
A majority of the blame can be focused on the way the prosecutor’s office is operated and how promotions are given. The prosecutor’s office keeps track of each attorney’s conviction rate. Though few will admit it, prosecutors are promoted based on the number of cases they have won, and the importance of winning cases is critical to their success. Some are elected officials and all are expected to win. When a position opens up, it’s more likely that the prosecutor with the highest conviction rate will be a top prospect for the spot.
In no way does this justify the behavior of those who choose to ignore the laws they swore to uphold. However, it is apparent how this system can cause a prosecutor to disregard all moral, ethical, and even, legal rules.
History has shown that American society, as a whole, is driven by money and power, and it’s apparent that some prosecutors are willing to sacrifice lives of innocent people to obtain the two. Truth and integrity seem to be a thing of the past.
People question how often this behavior occurs, and there is no set number. In 2010, a USA Today investigation compiled a list of 201 criminal cases where federal judges found prosecutors who broke the law or ethical rules. These violations led to the convictions of innocent people, which also means that guilty criminals were living freely.
A person can argue that 201 cases out of the thousands that go through the system are not significant, but they would be wrong. These cases are just the ones in which federal judges deemed behavior to be unethical. This number does not include cases where there wasn’t “enough” evidence to determine if a prosecutor misbehaved.
In America, a citizen can sue for just about anything, but you can’t sue a prosecutor. Many believe this is a major factor in what causes prosecutors to misbehave.
In 1961, Paul Kern Imbler was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of Morris Hasson. It was later revealed that the district attorney, Richard Pachtman, had suppressed exculpatory evidence and evoked falsified testimonies from key witnesses. After his exoneration Imbler sued Pacthman for prosecutorial misconduct, but the Supreme Court dismissed the case because Pactman was protected by prosecutorial immunity. Even if a prosecutor has been found to be acting in bad faith or ill will by deliberately hiding evidence or misrepresenting the facts, they are free from civil lawsuits.
When an average citizen violates the law there are repercussions for his or her actions. Sadly, the same rules don’t apply to prosecutors. Brady v. Maryland determined that “significant” evidence that is favorable to the defense must be disclosed or it’s a violation of the due process clause of the 14th amendment. The lead prosecutor in the Lyons case, Bruce Hinshelwood and many others, did just that. However, his “punishment” is one many would consider as a joke. Documents obtained by USA Today show he was ordered to serve a one-day ethics course for his behavior. A one-day course for deliberately putting an innocent man in prison for three years. The system basically gives a pass to its own, and takes years of life from the ones they are meant to protect. Many wonder, where is the justice in that?
It is infuriating that some prosecutors are advancing their careers by putting innocent people in prison without any accountability. This makes them above the law, because they are clearly not adhering to or being punished for breaking it. They have nothing to fear, because most of their actions are met with a slap on the wrist.
“If you want to change the culture, you will have to start by changing the organization. ”
Changing the way these offices operate is the only way this behavior will cease. Sadly, the chances of these changes is slim.
Although it is apparent the legal system rarely and truly punishes prosecutors guilty of purposefully convicting the innocent, we must remember Newtons Third Law – for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. For all their wrongdoing, there are innocence projects all over this country fighting for the true justice people of America deserve.
What do you think would be a fair punishment prosecutorial misconduct? We would love to hear your thoughts.