New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, signed into law on Thursday legislation that establishes a first-in-the-nation commission to investigate prosecutorial misconduct. The state hopes others in the nation will follow suit and create their own commissions.
Prosecutors have the power to bring charges against someone, but must also provide a fair, ethical trial and are obligated to turn over evidence to the defense. Failure to do so is considered misconduct, as it can result in an innocent person going to jail.
The Innocence Project (IP), an organization dedicated to overturning the convictions of the wrongly punished, praised the new commission, calling it “groundbreaking.”
“While most prosecutors respect their ethical obligations, far too many innocent people have been wrongly convicted as a result of prosecutorial misconduct, and until today there was no effective means for holding those who commit bad acts accountable,” the organization’s policy director, Rebecca Brown, said in a statement. “We hope other states will follow New York’s lead and address this serious problem plaguing the criminal justice system.”
A survey conducted by the organization, which reviewed the records of five different states over a five-year period between 2004 and 2008, found 660 cases of prosecutorial misconduct, yet just one prosecutor was punished. In New York, courts found 148 cases of misconduct during the five-year period, yet no prosecutors were punished.
In one of the most famous cases of prosecutorial misconduct, the Duke Lacrosse rape hoax — where the prosecutor repeatedly lied about evidence and led the accuser to choose three random people to charge, among other things — the prosecutor responsible, Mike Nifong, was disbarred and spent a single day in jail.
This is only a commission, however, as pointed out by attorney Scott Greenfield on Twitter. It can investigate complaints of possible misconduct, compel prosecutors to testify and turn over evidence, but won’t be able to actually punish anyone. All it can do is recommend punishment, such as sanctions or removal.
Prosecutorial misconduct is difficult to punish because prosecutors “are almost entirely immune from civil lawsuits even when they intentionally violate the law, making oversight by public agencies and the courts all the more critical,” according to a press release from IP.
While the commission could be a step forward for tackling this problem, we should withhold judgment until we see some results.