Posts Tagged ‘prosecutorial misconduct’

Report on Prosecutorial Misconduct Released on Fifth Anniversary of Connick v. Thompson Decision

Kate Mathis — April 06, 2016 @ 1:00 PM — Comments (0)

Tuesday, March 29 marked the fifth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Connick v. Thompson, a case involving John Thompson, who was convicted in Louisiana in 1984 for robbery and murder that he did not commit. After being prosecuted for the robbery, the district attorney was able to secure the death penalty for Thompson’s murder charge. While Thompson was at the Louisiana State Penitentiary known as Angola facing his seventh execution date, his appellate attorneys hired a private investigator that discovered scientific evidence suggesting he was innocent of the robbery. That evidence had been concealed by the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office for 15 years.

After spending 18 years in prison, 14 of them in solitary confinement on death row, Thompson was exonerated of both crimes in 2003. When he was released, he was given $10 and a bus ticket from the state of Louisiana. Thompson subsequently sued the district attorney’s office and was awarded $14 million for his years spent on death row. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court after the state appealed the $14 million verdict. A decision was reached in Connick v. Thompson on March 29, 2011 with Justice Clarence Thomas presenting the 5-4 majority opinion. The Court granted prosecutors broad immunity for their misconduct after ruling that the district attorney’s office could not be held liable. This ruling voided the hefty award given by the jury to Thompson.

The Innocence Project, the Veritas Initiative at Santa Clara University, Innocence Project New Orleans, and Resurrection After Exoneration formed the Prosecutorial Oversight Coalition following the Supreme Court’s decision. The purpose of the coalition focused on prosecutorial error and misconduct and the many instances in which no one was seemingly being held accountable for those actions.

The Prosecutorial Oversight Coalition released a report this year on the anniversary of the Connick v. Thompson decision, titled Prosecutorial Oversight: A National Dialogue in the Wake of Connick v. Thompson. The report, which calls for greater prosecutor transparency and accountability, details the coalition’s original research findings. Over a five-year time span, the coalition reviewed court findings of misconduct for five geographically diverse states, including California, Arizona, Texas, Pennsylvania, and New York. Likely an undercount due to the difficulty of identifying this type of behavior, they documented 660 findings of misconduct.

The coalition also assembled a number of forums in those five states with panelists from all facets of the criminal justice system in order to start a meaningful dialogue about the issue and to suggest system recommendations that would promote more accountability. Highlights from those forums were also included in the report. Current and former prosecutors, ethics professors, members of state bar disciplinary committees, exonerees, defense lawyers, and judges all participated in the forums.

The report’s recommendations, which are geared towards prosecutors, courts, state lawmakers, and state bar oversight entities, were greatly influenced by the forum discussions.

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More Than a Mistake: The Manipulation Inherent in False Confessions

Samantha Adams — January 27, 2015 @ 10:22 AM — Comments (1)

It is difficult to learn that people are convicted for crimes they did not commit. Accepting the existence of wrongful convictions means facing the fact that America’s criminal justice system is not infallible. But we must acknowledge that while our legal system portrays itself as only punishing those who are guilty, there are many weak areas where the innocent can mistakenly slip through the cracks. For example, it is extremely common for eyewitnesses to inadvertently identify an innocent person, as did Jennifer Thompson when she wrongly identified Ronald Cotton as the man who raped her. The jury, strongly influenced by the eyewitness testimony, thus convicts the innocent man. In such a case, neither the jury nor the eyewitness intends to be unjust; they mistakenly believe that they have correctly identified the criminal.

Unfortunately, there are also instances where wrongful convictions are more than a mistake. While some wrongful convictions can be at least partially explained away by human error, other cases show signs of outright manipulation. A strong indicator that some sort of deception or coercion was inherent in the wrongful conviction is the existence of a false confession.

Police interrogations are a common source of manipulation leading to false confessions. In a recent study, psychologists Stephen Porter and Julia Shaw found that not only is it surprisingly easy to create false memories of committing crime, but also that many of the methods that lead to the creation of these false memories are commonly employed in police interrogations as part of the Reid technique. For example, interrogations following the Reid technique are designed to be accusatory and to elicit a confession from the suspect, and often make use of false evidence and social pressures. All of these methods were employed by Porter and Shaw in their study, and contributed to the creation of the participants’ false memories. In other words, police interrogations are not always intended to correctly identify the culprit; rather, the police often assume that the suspect is guilty and do whatever it takes to force a confession out of him or her, including manipulating the suspect’s memory and producing a false confession.

Eddie Joe Lloyd’s case provides an even more straightforwardly deceitful example of how police interrogations can lead to false confessions. Police convinced the mentally ill Lloyd that by incriminating himself in the 1984 murder of a 16-year-old girl, he would influence the real culprit to confess and thus be helping the police solve a crime. Of course, police instead used his confession to implicate Lloyd himself, and he was sentenced to life in prison, which he served until being exonerated with DNA evidence in 2002. It’s clear, then, that the manipulation involved in police interrogations is not harmless. Confessions are extremely powerful evidence that often lead to conviction, and police who use these sorts of coercive strategies to encourage suspects to falsely confess are a major player in wrongful convictions.

Police are not the only ones guilty of manipulative techniques, however. Prosecutors also play a role in encouraging false confessions through the practice of plea bargaining. Judge Jed S. Rakoff has written an informative article about how prosecutor’s offers of a plea bargain can lead innocent people to plead guilty. While it may seem like plea bargains actually offer defendants a good deal, for example, serving life in prison instead of being charged with the death penalty if they simply plead guilty to the crime without a trial, we must remember that these bargains can be a deal with the devil. If an innocent person has been so far implicated in a crime that he or she is forced to go to court, he or she may believe there is no possibility of being proved innocent, and will instead resort to taking whatever scraps the prosecutor throws at them in the form of a plea bargain. The innocent person is then stuck with a charge and prison time, and faces the obstacle of going against his own confession if he ever wants to prove himself innocent. Rakoff notes that an estimated 2 to 8 percent of convicted felons are actually innocent and plead guilty to avoid harsher sentences, and that 10 percent of the Innocence Project’s exonerations had previously plead guilty to their charge. Plea bargains can certainly be a temptation that is hard to avoid.

Too many innocent people are being manipulated to falsely confess and subsequently convicted based on these false confessions. The fact that players in the criminal justice system are actually working in ways to encourage these false confessions is an unfortunate truth that must be recognized in the fight against wrongful convictions.

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Browsing the National Registry of Exonerations

Marianne Salcedo — October 30, 2014 @ 9:29 AM — Comments (0)

The National Registry of Exonerations is an outstanding source of information about exonerations in the United States since 1989. It is searchable, and recently, we took some time to create a short summary of exonerations in the State of Florida.

There have been 50 exonerations listed for Florida, including capital cases, since 1989. Fifteen have been based on new DNA evidence.  Florida leads the nation in exonerations for death penalty cases.

The factors contributing to Florida exonerations range from mistaken witness identification, official misconduct, perjury, false accusation, inadequate legal defense, and false or misleading forensic evidence. By far, the leading factor in Florida cases is perjury of false accusation.

Once you search for the exonerations you wish to examine, links will take you to case summary pages. Here are some examples. Click on the last names to learn more about these cases on the Registry website.

Neely, Todd; Florida; Exonerated 1989; Mistaken Witness ID, Official Misconduct.

Townsend, Jerry; Florida; Exonerated 2001; Mistaken Witness ID, False Confession.

Britt, Cheydrick; Florida; Exonerated 2013; False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Inadequate Legal Defense.

Mr. Britt was exonerated with assistance from the Innocence Project of Florida just last year. In the coming months, we anticipate up to three more exonerations. Stay tuned and take some time to read about all of Florida’s exonerees, many of whom IPF has helped to free, and learn about all of the cases of injustice throughout the United States.

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Motivated by Innocence, Jabbar Collins Awarded $13 Million

Marianne Salcedo — October 22, 2014 @ 10:56 AM — Comments (0)

Jabbar Collins was wrongfully convicted at age 20 of the murder of a rabbi in New York.  Highly motivated by his innocence, Collins, who dropped out of school when he was 16, spent countless hours in the prison library learning what he needed to know to request case documents and trial transcripts and represent himself pro se.  Last summer, with the help of his lawyer, Collins was awarded a $10 million settlement by New York City and another $3 million by the State of New York.

Attorney Joel Rudin, who represents Collins, says the $13 million total ties the record amount for a wrongfully convicted defendant in New York City.

In 1994, Collins was arrested for the murder of a rabbi in Brooklyn, New York, during a robbery.  The three witnesses who testified against him had been coerced and bribed by the prosecutor, although during Collins’ trial, the defense was assured that these confidential informants received nothing in exchange for their testimony.

Although a rogue prosecutor eager to “solve” a high-profile slaying is blamed for Collins’ conviction, his case provided support for claims that the office of former Brooklyn district attorney Charles J. Hynes didn’t adequately rein in prosecutors who broke the rules.

Under Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson, who ran his election campaign on the promise that he would clean up the string of wrongful convictions and other shenanigans that occurred during Hynes tenure, the City and State of New York have paid out nearly $20 million and are currently being sued for more than $200 million.


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Michigan Man Exonerated After 17 Years in Prison

Justin Hirsche — September 09, 2014 @ 9:01 AM — Comments (0)

Jaime Lee Peterson was exonerated today after spending 17 years in custody and in a Michigan prison for the rape and murder of a elderly woman that he did not commit. He was serving a life sentence. The cause of his wrongful conviction stems from his false confession during the interrogation process which happened four months after the murder. Despite knowing that DNA testing of the victim’s rape kit excluded Peterson as the rapist, the jury convicted Peterson at a 1998 trial. The prosecutor led the jury to believe that semen found at the crime scene that was, at that time, untestable most likely belonged to Mr. Peterson. Along with his initial confession, this was enough to sentence him to life in prison. New DNA testing was conducted last year at the urging of Mr. Peterson’s new attorneys, the testing sought to prove that the previously untestable DNA belonged to the same person whose DNA was found initially with the rape kit. All of the male DNA  tested in this case was found to match a man named Jason Ryan (who was actually interviewed during the initial investigation).  Ryan was arrested last year for this decades old crime and currently is awaiting trial. Petersen’s case was led by the Michigan Innocence Clinic.

This case is just another one to add to the troubling ever growing list of coerced false confessions. After initially confessing Jaime (who is cognitively impaired) recanted his statements, but that usually does the person in such a situation no good. Roughly a fourth of those exonerated in America falsely confessed to crimes at some point during their interrogation. Jaime is the fourth man in Michigan to be exonerated by DNA evidence.

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DNA Evidence Clears Two men in 1983 North Carolina Murder Case

Justin Hirsche — September 03, 2014 @ 4:03 PM — Comments (0)

After spending 30 long years in prison, two brothers in North Carolina were exonerated Tuesday by a North Carolina Judge. Henry Lee McCollum and Leon Brown were both released from prison today They had been found guilty of the heinous rape and murder of an 11-year old girl. The two African American men were 15 and 19 at the time of the murder are both considered intellectually disabled. After long hours of unethical interrogation with no lawyer present each separately confessed to the crime, by signing statements written for them by police officers. But when they were sent to trial they recanted all of their statements confessing to the crime. Key evidence was left unaccounted for at the time of the trial. A similar murder had been committed in the same town within a month of the brother’s arrest, and a local man, Roscoe Artis, had confessed to the rape and murder of an 18-year old. Artis lived just a block from where the victim’s body had been found yet he was not seen as a suspect. A cigarette butt found near the vicitim’s body was tested  to see whose DNA would show up on it — there was not a match for either of the exonerees — but their was a match for Roscoe Artis’s DNA. Artis is currently serving a life sentence for his other rape and murder.

Leon Brown was sent away for life and Henry Lee McCollum received the death penalty with no evidence connecting them to the crime, but because they confessed to it under duress they had a huge chunk of their lives stolen. This just furthers the evidence that just because someone confesses to a crime when they are under immense pressure, that does not mean they are guilty of said crime. Roughly 25 percent of those wrongly convicted of crimes have admitted guilt during their initial interrogation, the only way we can stop this cruel treatment is to change the way we interrogate suspects and make sure all interrogations are videotaped. Over the past 23 years there have been over 2,000 exonerations in the United States and with the great news of today we can add two more to that ever growing list.

McCollum and Brown were defended in their search for the truth by Center for Death Penalty Litigation.

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Hayne and West: Mississippi’s Corrupt Duo

Henry Thompson — February 10, 2014 @ 9:28 AM — Comments (3)

Medical examiners often play an integral role in criminal cases when they are called as an expert witnesses to testify on the behalf of the prosecution. In most cases, these medical examiners’ opinions are trusted and their testimony often heavily influences whether someone is found guilty or acquitted.

The infamous Dr. Steven Hayne of Mississippi has been regarded as an incompetent and unreliable medical examiner by the medical and legal communities for years now. Even though Hayne has not been a medical examiner since 2008, his legacy continues to wreak havoc on the lives of those whom he testified against.

Hayne began working with dentist Michael West, his frequent collaborator, in 1987 when he began performing autopsies in Mississippi. Despite lacking sufficient credentials, Hayne monopolized the autopsies performed in Mississippi, claiming he was completing 1200 to 1500 autopsies a year; working 365 days per year, that’s more than 3 autopsies per day. The National Association of Medical Examiners recommends about 250 autopsies per medical examiner per year.

With Hayne backing up West’s testimonies, and vice versa, the two frequently worked together, resulting in several men being sentenced to life in prison. One of these men was Levon Brooks in 1990. Brooks was convicted of raping and murdering 3-year old Courtney Smith in Brooksville, Miss. This occurred after Hayne found bite marks on the girl during the autopsy and called Michael West to take dental molds of several suspects and compare them to the marks found. Just ten days after the murder, Levon Brooks was identified as the abductor by Courtney Smith’s sister and was found to be the perpetrator through a dental mold test performed by West. Brooks was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 1992.

Again the two collaborated in a strikingly similar case in Mississippi. In this case, a young girl was abducted, raped, and killed. The police focused their search on a friend of the girl’s sister. This man, Kennedy Brewer, was then tried and convicted thanks to another bite mark examination performed by Hayne and West. Brewer was sentenced to death.

One of the first instances in which Michael West used this dental mark examination was in 1989 with the case of Henry Lee Harrison. West used blue ultraviolet light to reveal bite marks on the body which were previously unseen. Just like Steven Hayne, Michael West’s methods have been criticized by many in the past. West and Hayne found that when the two collaborated using the bite mark examination they were very successful.

“He is clearly a sore on the body of forensic science,” says James Starrs, a professor of law and forensic science at George Washington University and publisher of Scientific Sleuthing Review, an industry newsletter. “He is forever going beyond what other scientists are willing or able to say.” – ABA Journal 

In 2001, The Innocence Project was investigating the case of Kennedy Brewer and found DNA evidence that proved he was not the perpetrator. However, authorities initially didn’t find the true criminal and Brewer remained in prison until Albert Johnson, another suspect in both cases, was re-interviewed by law enforcement officials. Johnson admitted to committing the crimes that Brewer and Brooks had been convicted of and the two men were freed in 2008.

Upon this news, Stephen Hayne and Michael West underwent intense scrutiny regarding their practices and methods. Hayne was found to be incompetent and overbearing by his peers and those who he worked with.

 For nearly 20 years, Hayne performed as much as 90 percent of the criminal autopsies in Mississippi, which by his own account could approach 1,800 autopsies per year. Over the last two years, The Huffington Post has reported on several other cases in which Hayne and his frequent collaborator Michael West have given questionable testimony or issued forensics reports that led to a wrongful arrest — most recently in January, with an investigation into the 1997 murder of 39-year-old Kathy Mabry.The Huffington Post

Although the media and the general public contended that Stephen Hayne and his partner were incompetent, Hayne still maintained a large following of supporters in his home state. This is only evident through the fact that he was allowed to continue practicing.

In 2002, Jeffery Havard was convicted of killing his girlfriend’s infant child. Hayne was an expert witness during the case of Mr. Havard, despite his own recent credibility issues. Hayne contended that Havard had sexually abused the child and then subsequently killed the child through violent shaking. Mr. Havard was sentenced to death even though he argued that the child had just slipped from his hands and hit her head.

 “Once Havard was convicted, his case was kicked up to the Mississippi Capital Post Conviction Office, a well-funded state legal defense agency that was started after several federal court decisions pretty much demanded it. That office hired former Alabama State Medical Examiner Jim Lauridson to review Hayne’s autopsy in the Havard case. Lauridson found it lacking.”The Huffington Post

Hayne’s autopsies were often lacking even though they were not reviewed consistently by his medical peers. Hayne’s work as an expert witness did not simply send one man to death row in Mississippi: Jeffery Havard is on death row as well as Devin Bennett, Eddie Lee Howard, and Jimmie Duncan thanks to Hayne and West.

Hayne does not continue to practice as a medical examiner, nor is it likely he will continue to act as an expert witness. He still is called to the stand to review and comment on postconviction cases in which he originally performed autopsies.  Hayne, and those who abuse their power within the justice system for their own gain, must be rooted out and expelled if we are to have a justice system that can be trusted to produce reliable outcomes.

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Newly Established Prosecutorial Misconduct Database Online

Henry Thompson — January 14, 2014 @ 1:01 PM — Comments (2)

Prosecutorial misconduct has been a contributing factor in 42% of wrongful conviction cases. Recently it has seen many outspoken critics.  In a recent article by The New York Times the issue was raised by its editors wherein they make mention of the fact that prosecutors are obliged to bring to the court any exculpatory evidence that could change the verdict pursuant to the 1963 Supreme Court ruling on Brady v. Maryland. This obligation is counter-intuitive for prosecutors, because they are primarily striving to bring justice to the community through convictions.

The Editorial Board of the New York Times wrote “The lack of professional consequences for failing to disclose exculpatory evidence only makes the breach of duty more likely. As Judge Kozinski wrote, “Some prosecutors don’t care about Brady because courts don’t make them care.”  Others have also recently bemoaned the acceptable nature of frequent prosecutorial misconduct and have shamed judges for not upholding the obligations of Brady v. Maryland.

Registry-Logo-300x300In response to this outcry, the Center for Prosecutor Integrity began tracking and monitoring prosecutorial integrity around the country and they have created a registry of cases of prosecutorial misconduct.  “The CPI Registry of Prosecutorial Misconduct enables policymakers, researchers, and others to identify common types of misconduct, assess trends, and compare jurisdictions.” This new registry was opened to the public during the first week of January 2014. It is searchable by a number of identifying details like crime, state, type of trial (federal or not), prosecutor name, case name, as well as finding.

The Registry of Prosecutorial Misconduct defines prosecutorial misconduct “as a violation of a code of professional ethics or pertinent law, or other conduct that prejudices the administration of justice, whether intentional or inadvertent. Inclusion of a case in the Registry is based on a finding of prosecutorial misconduct by a trial court, appellate court, supreme court, or legal disciplinary body.”

Not only did the Center for Prosecutor Integrity create a highly usable and friendly database for the public to use but they have also created a graph to accompany the newly founded database. The graph denotes that 84 of the cases found in the database of 200 were a result of pretrial Brady violations on behalf of the prosecutors. It can be found here. This database is one of the first steps in determining the larger picture of prosecutorial misconduct and holding those responsible accountable for abusing the public trust. The CPI database can be found here.

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The Deep Roots of Prosecutorial Misconduct

Anna Fitzpatrick — May 24, 2013 @ 2:17 PM — Comments (1)

Fifty years ago, in the landmark Brady v. Maryland case, the U.S. Supreme Court established a fundamental principle about the duty of prosecutors – to seek justice fairly, not merely win convictions by any means. This meant that due process required prosecutors to disclose any exculpatory evidence that was likely to affect a conviction or sentence. Known as the Brady Rule, the case was meant to lead to more transparency and equity in criminal proceedings; however, its power has been restricted by subsequent rulings of the court and severely weakened by a near complete lack of punishment for prosecutors who skirt around the rule.

It is impossible to know how often prosecutors violate Brady since this type of misconduct, by definition, involves concealment. But there is good reason to believe that violations are widespread. The National Registry of Exonerations has compiled detailed data for about 1,100 exonerations for the period 1989-2012. Of those cases, a whopping 42% were caused by what has been deemed “official misconduct.” Allowing for a 50-50 split between police and prosecutorial misconduct, the number still hovers around 21%, and when one considers that prosecutors are meant to seek justice rather than convictions, that is a rather alarming rate. The court has long agreed that individual prosecutors should be protected from civil liability so that they may freely pursue criminals; unfortunately, that allows for almost complete unaccountability for wrong-doings in judicial proceedings.

Recently the “Michael Morton Act” was passed in Texas, a law meant to decrease the amount of wrongful convictions within the state. The bill’s namesake spent 25 years in prison for the murder of his wife before DNA evidence finally exonerated him in 2011. The prosecutor in his case has been accused of deliberately withholding a substantial amount of evidence that would have led to an acquittal, including an account from the defendants three-year-old son who witnessed the murder and explained that “Daddy wasn’t home” at the time, neighbor testimonials who saw a man park a green van outside the house the morning of the murder, and a police officer in San Antonio who stated he could identify a woman who had used the victim’s stolen Visa card in a jewelry store – all of which were withheld from the defense.

The case of John Thompson represents another example of atrocious prosecutorial misconduct and the Supreme Court’s refusal to hold the prosecutor accountable. Mr. Thompson spent 14 years on death row before he was exonerated following the discovery that lawyers in the New Orleans district attorney’s office had kept more than a dozen pieces of evidence secret, even destroying some. Yet the Supreme Court overturned a $14 million jury award to Mr. Thompson, ruling that the prosecutor’s office had not shown a pattern of “deliberate indifference” to constitutional rights.

One root of the epidemic of misconduct may stem from prosecutors positions as pseudo-politicians. The position of “prosecutor” is imbedded with an incredible level of power, and as Lord Acton wrote 126 years ago, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Not only do prosecutors have power, but they are essentially free from accountability. The outrageous breaches of due process discussed here are merely illustrative of a deep-rooted indifference towards the assurance of justice.

But what can be done? One example of a better approach that has been adopted in North Carolina and now Ohio is to adopt an open-files reform to make criminal cases more efficient and fair. The state statute require prosecutors in felony cases, before trial, to make available to the defense “the complete files of all law enforcement agencies, investigatory agencies and prosecutors’ offices involved in the investigation of the crimes committed or the prosecution of the defendant.” The Justice Department insists that is has solved the problem by tightening requirements for disclosure, but numerous misconduct scandals show that is not sufficient. The best way to fulfill the promise of Brady is with open-files reform, which addresses the need for full disclosure of evidence that could show a defendant’s innocence.

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Judge Ken Anderson Faces Criminal Charges

Jessica — April 26, 2013 @ 1:37 PM — Comments (1)

In February, Michael Morton submitted a court of inquiry to the State of Texas regarding the conduct of the leading prosecutor in his case.  On Friday, April 19, 2013, a Texas judge decided that Ken Anderson, former district attorney and now judge, would face criminal charges for his improper behavior in 1987.

Barry Scheck, co-founder of The Innocence Project, stated in The Innocence Project press release,

“We believe this is a landmark case. I know that good prosecutors, and that’s most of them, agree that it’s important Judge Anderson be held accountable for the willful misconduct that caused Michael Morton to lose 25 years of his life.”

“It’s extremely rare for prosecutors to be punished for deliberately hiding exculpatory evidence, much less face criminal charges. But this outcome will hopefully usher in a new era of oversight to ensure that prosecutors live up to their ethical obligations.”

The court as well as District Judge Louis Sterns, who was presiding over the case, decided Anderson should face charges for withholding exculpatory evidence from the defense resulting in Morton’s wrongful conviction after determining the Anderson was aware of the Judge’s trial orders.

It is reassuring to know that prosecutors who engage in ethical and legal misconduct are being held accountable for their actions. The reformation of the criminal justice system is going to take time but steps in the right direction such as The Prosecutorial Oversight Campaign  are crucial in the change towards a better system. It is important every individual of the law continually upholds the law and those who do not are rightfully held accountable.

In the press release, Nina Morrison, a Senior Staff Attorney with the Innocence Project, stated,

“Hopefully this case will serve as a wake-up call to prosecutors across the nation that there are real consequences for ignoring the ethical rules that have been established to ensure that everyone gets a fair trial.”

Although criminal charges against prosecutors are rare, the success of Morton’s court of inquiry demonstrates the justice the system owes him for the miscarriage of justice that he received for 25 years.

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