Prosecutorial Misconduct Leading to Wrongful Convictions

Prosecutors often are under a great deal of pressure to quickly convict criminals, particularly where high-profile or violent crimes have occurred. Combined with the pressures of an elected office, overwhelming caseloads, and an honest desire to seek justice, prosecutors sometimes act unethically with regard to the crimes that they are prosecuting. As a result of prosecutorial misconduct, people have been wrongly convicted of crimes in some cases. There has been no shortage of cases in the news recently where courts have overturned criminal convictions based on the improper actions of a prosecutor. While honest mistakes are sometimes made by prosecutors, prosecutorial misconduct can occur when a prosecutor focuses on a convenient suspect rather than the correct suspect, when a prosecutor suppresses, hides, or even fabricates certain evidence, or when a prosecutor improperly relies on an unreliable witness. All such incidences of prosecutorial misconduct can lead to the overturning of the conviction on appeal.

Focusing on the Wrong Suspect

In the rush to hastily convict and severely punish criminals, a prosecutor can focus too closely on a certain suspect, despite the existence of factors and/or evidence that points to a different perpetrator. Due to the nature of their profession, prosecutors tend to operate in the public eye, subject to intense scrutiny by the media and constituents, particularly in cases involving serious, shocking, and/or violent crimes. As a result, prosecutors sometimes make the mistake of devoting all resources to the prosecution of a certain suspect, rather than searching for other possible motives or evidence that might lead to another suspect. A prosecutor’s doggedness and zeal in this regard can cause him or her to simply ignore potentially exculpatory evidence or other factors that point away from the suspect at issue. Even when it appears quite possible that another person committed the crime, prosecutors can be tempted to disregard such evidence and focus solely on obtaining a conviction, even if it results in a wrongful conviction. 

Suppressing or Fabricating Evidence

The most common incidence of prosecutorial misconduct involves the suppression or fabrication of exculpatory evidence, or evidence that might lead to the exoneration of the person suspected of the crime. Once a prosecutor publicly identifies and detains a viable suspect for a serious crime, thus satisfying public outcry and media inquiry, he or she may be reluctant to deal with any evidence or information that does not support his or her case against the suspect. This situation underscores the tension between a prosecutor’s desire for a conviction and his or her duty to disclose exculpatory evidence to the defense. At a minimum, a prosecutor may downplay or simply ignore exculpatory evidence. At the other extreme, a prosecutor may take steps to actively hide such evidence from the suspect’s defense attorney, destroy evidence, and/or fabricate other evidence in support of his or her case. Obviously, such actions by prosecutors involve serious professional misconduct that can definitely result in the wrong person being convicted of the crime. When evidence is manipulated in such a manner, the justice system, heralded for its ability to convict the guilty and exonerate the innocent, simply cannot function normally, thus leading to wrongful convictions. 

Improperly Relying on Unreliable Witnesses

Finally, a prosecutor may commit misconduct and interfere with the proper administration of justice in a criminal case when he or she bases criminal charges primarily on the testimony of an inherently unreliable witness. By using “snitches”, or jailhouse informants, who are readily available to deliver damaging testimony against suspects in multiple criminal cases, in exchange for incentives related to their own criminal cases and/or jail terms, a prosecutor may be utilizing a witness that is totally unreliable. Since the snitch’s motive is purely for self-gain, and the snitch has literally nothing to lose by testifying, it is more likely than not that the snitch may not be telling the truth, or at least the whole truth. When a snitch’s testimony is the primary evidence behind a criminal conviction, it tends to be unreliable, which, in turn, increases the possibility of a wrongful conviction. 

Appeals and Prosecutorial Misconduct

While it can be difficult to definitively prove the existence of prosecutorial misconduct in a criminal case, it is not impossible, and certainly has occurred in some cases. If you believe that you have valid and reliable evidence that prosecutorial misconduct has occurred, and that someone has been wrongfully convicted of a crime as a result, you should contact that person’s legal counsel immediately. Evidence of prosecutorial misconduct, including the rejection of other possible suspects, the improper manipulation of evidence, and/or the reliance on notoriously untruthful witnesses, all can constitute grounds for a conviction to be overturned on appeal. Such evidence can be reviewed by the state court of appeals, and even by the state supreme court, or another higher appeals court, and may result in an overturning of the person’s criminal conviction.

The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.

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