When New York City prosecutors break the rules, the consequences can be serious: Murderers can go free, and innocent people can lose years of their life in jail. But as a new ProPublica investigation released today makes clear, prosecutorial misconduct almost always goes unpunished.
Combing through the records, ProPublica‘s reporters found a single case in which a prosecutor, Claude Stuart, then a Queens Assistant District Attorney, lost his job for abusing his power, but that only happened after Stuart had been caught witholding and manipulating evidence in multiple cases and lying to a judge. But the fact that Stuart faced any consequences at all for his misconduct makes him an exception.
A ProPublica analysis of more than a decade’s worth of state and federal court rulings found more than two dozen instances in which judges explicitly concluded that city prosecutors had committed harmful misconduct. In each instance, these abuses were sufficient to prompt courts to throw out convictions.
Yet the same appellate courts did not routinely refer prosecutors for investigation by the state disciplinary committees charged with policing lawyers. Disciplinary committees, an arm of the appellate courts, almost never took serious action against prosecutors. None of the prosecutors who oversaw cases reversed based on misconduct were disbarred, suspended, or censured except for Stuart.
The report, which is worth reading in its entirety, may ring a bell for readers who remember the Voice‘s January cover story on Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes, whose office has been plagued by accusations of prosecutorial misconduct.
Part of the problem, ProPublica reports, is that the disciplinary mechanisms for prosecutors operate behind a veil of secrecy. Of the 91,000 complaints of misconduct lodged in Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island from 2001 to 2009, only 1 percent resulted in public sanctions.
It’s slightly more common for a prosecutor to be sanctioned privately, in the form of a disciplinary letter, but if that happens, it’s secret. There’s no way for anyone but the prosecutor and the person who lodged the complaint to know about it.
The state Bar Association has made recommendations for ways to bring some accountability to the system, and the state legislature is considering several bills that would help protect against prosecutorial abuse. But the state’s District Attorneys oppose the legislation, and so far it hasn’t gone anywhere.