Above the Law: Prosecutorial Misconduct

Alejandra de la Fuente — July 26, 2012 @ 1:58 PM — Comments (6)

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.

Prosecutors Protection

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. ”
-Mary Douglas

Changing the way these offices operate is the only way this behavior will cease. Sadly, the chances of these changes is slim.

“Life is like a boomerang…Sooner or later, our thoughts, beliefs and actions return to us with amazing accuracy.”

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.


Your Thoughts

What do you think would be a fair punishment prosecutorial misconduct? We would love to hear your thoughts.

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Comments and Pings on “Above the Law: Prosecutorial Misconduct”

  1. The refusal of bar associations to impose any actual disicipline for prosecutorial abuse within the judicial process is far and away the leading cause of wrongful convictions. The bottom line is that the profession wants the ability to wrongfully convict those who threaten the existing power structure. Only when actual discipline is mandated for willful misconduct will prosecutors no longer have the incentive to wrongly convict. Should be a minimum year in prison for every year that the victim is wrongly imprisoned. If willful misconduct causes 20 yrs wrongly in jail, then the offending prosecutor should serve that same time. Zero tolerance is the only effective remedy.

  2. My son was convicted by an ambitious prosecutor and false evidence of a dog handler
    who was proven to be a fraud! I would like to see that prosecutor spend 28 years in
    prison as my son has! Brevard County, Florida is notorious for such convictions of innocent people!

     Maxine Reid — July 27, 2012 @ 11:48 pm
  3. If more people begin to make demands like Mark’s, fewer families will be torn to ribbons, and fewer hearts will be broken, like Ms. Maxine’s.

  4. My son was falsely arrested/accused of 2 counts of 1st degree murder of OUR RELATIVES WE LOVED, the killers went free and my son detained for 20 days..pulled out of school 2 mo’s before his graduation he was never in trouble before and our family has been continually harrassed by the parties involved in this atrocity. I have lost everything I have, as a single mother I diligently worked to rear respectful children only to have them rip everything away from us in a lying decietful manner..what has this taught our children and our community? My children have all suffered greatly and their educations, careers, families and all of our friends and family have suffered and continue to suffer for six years because of a horrific crime we were victims of NOT CRIMINALS. Criminals went free. I tried to get help filed multiple complaints with DOJ, FDLE, FBI..ON AND ON. Pleaded for our safety and protection since the men were/are still free. Two men were stalking us prior to and have continued and they have not arrested them despite histories in other states of exact behavior..because it is not as easy as it is to take advantage of innocent people with no experience with crime. We hired an attorney for our son that also cooperated with the prosecution and failed ethically representing my son miserably so inclusive of lying to him. My son will now for the rest of his life have an arrest record for 2 counts of first degree murder even though it was expunged it will come up but show expunged- which of course they waited 3 years to do, I don’t know maybe because of the Statute of Limitations..hmmm.. I know there are many who have served many years and my heart breaks. I share this because the damage is permanent and impacts many. I watched in horror as Law Enforcement, Judges, Politicians were like a pack of wolves ripping chunks out of my children’s souls..I pleaded, cried, fought to no avail. They lied, released false statements, made false reports, sexually harrassed and continue to do so today. I have copies of much. I have been trying to get my family help because we cannot get free of this vicious circle, if anyone out there will/can help us please contact me. I have so much evidence and documentation and pictures and dvds..I just need some muscle~NO ONE HOLDS THESE PEOPLE ACCOUNTABLE AND THEY USED MY BEAUTIFUL FAMILY AS HUMAN PAWNS..God Bless us all..

  5. When this happened to us I thought it was such an error and was so confused. Detectives lied and manipulated us and it became a train of terror that we could not even slow down with every power we had. Nothing phased the process, BECAUSE there is no governing Law Enforcement and the Judicial System making decisions in citizens lives everyday. They do what they want, how they want and it almost seems as though when you file complaints they look at you with a cheshire grin because they KNOW you are defenseless. It is abuse and they are protected criminals. Why is this neanderthal way of life still existent when there is so much knowledge available to improve our lives and protect our children and families? BECAUSE there are a select few who make the rules and your life does not belong to you..well guess what, my life does not belong to them either~God holds my family and you all may get away with current behavior but will ultimately face the big man and he will bring your judgment. My faith is my courage, as a single woman to be daunted and harrassed by these men has been an absolute horrific ordeal for my daughters and my son was emasculated~ HOW MUCH MORE EVIL CAN IT GET..They should be held accountable-they are legal criminals that do NOT comply with the oaths they take..even IF they are protected by ammunity-should they not be held accountable to the requirements of their position when not in compliance? Why are they still employed and earning a salary while taking lives-they are murders. They should get life sentences for each life they take including the families, siblings, loved ones and friends. I have an entire community traumatized by what they saw our family experience, they are outraged and no longer have ANY faith or believe in Law Enforcement or the Judicial system because of these actions. It is fraudulent and disgusting and in my opinion not only to line the pockets of them but of the States that tolerate their behavior. I think also the States should have grants etc. revoked when they tolerate this and do not assist the victims. DEFINITE SHAME ON FLORIDA..

  6. My son’s and nephew where prosecuted by a Statewide Prosecutor who had a personal issue with them. The charges where Racially Motivated. This prosecutor called my son’s every name except the son’s of god.

    Per the lawyer this case was brought against these young man for federal grant awarded to the Attorney General Office-Pam Bondi.

     Yvonne Briggs — July 30, 2012 @ 1:57 pm

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