Prosecutorial Misconduct

Upcoming Supreme Court Cases Could Clarify Standard Requiring Disclosure of Exculpatory Evidence

Prosecutorial misconduct, including withholding evidence favorable to the defense, is the most common cause of wrongful convictions in death penalty cases, but prosecutors frequently fail to disclose this evidence, narrowly interpreting the U.S. Supreme Court's 1963 decision in Brady v. Maryland calling for its disclosure. On March 29, the Court will hear two consolidated cases—Turner v. United States and Overton v. United States—that raise questions under Brady as to when courts should grant defendants a new trial when prosecutors fail to disclose exculpatory evidence to the defense. While the Court may narrowly address Brady's application to these two cases, attorney and legal commentator Bidish Sarma argues that Turner-Overton presents an opportunity for the Court to "clarify principles and curtail the confusion that permeates lower courts’ opinions." Prosecutors currently argue that they may consider the materiality of evidence that favors the defense when they decide whether to disclose that evidence. Others say all evidence favorable to the defense must be disclosed, irrespective of materiality. Withholding favorable evidence from the defense appears to work—a study by the VERITAS Initiative of Santa Clara University School of Law and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers found that courts upheld convictions in 86 percent of the cases in which they found that prosecutors had suppressed exculpatory evidence. An amicus brief by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, FreedomWorks, Cause of Action Institute, and American Legislative Exchange Council urges the Court to make it clear that prosecutors must turn over all evidence favorable to the defense, saying, "[r]equiring production of all favorable evidence solves the problem that prosecutors face in administering the current materiality standard." A recent study by the National Registry of Exonerations found that more than half of all murder exonerations involved Brady violations. According to that study, official misconduct was more common in cases involving black defendants (76%) than white defendants (63%). That disparity grew in capital cases, where 87% of death-row exonerations of black defendants involved official misconduct, compared to 67% of death-row exonerations of white defendants. A DPIC analysis of recent death-row exonerations found that police or prosecutorial misconduct was a major factor in 16 of the last 18 exonerations. DPIC's review of the National Registry's 2016 exoneration data also found that every one of the 13 murder exonerations in which prosecutors had sought or threatened to impose the death penalty involved either official misconduct or perjured testimony/false accusation, and eleven (84.6%) of them involved both. 

Reports Find Record Number of Exonerations in 2016, Blacks More Likely to be Wrongfully Convicted

Companion reports released on March 7 by the National Registry of Exonerations found record numbers of exonerations and wrongful convictions involving official misconduct in 2016, and striking evidence of racial bias both in the wrongful convictions themselves and in the time it took the judicial process to exonerate the wrongfully incarcerated. The Registry's report, Exonerations in 2016, found a record 166 exonerations in 2016, with 54 defendants exonerated of homicide. A DPIC review of the Registry's data revealed that the death penalty played a role in nearly a quarter of the homicide exonerations. In at least six of the wrongful homicide convictions, prosecutors had sought the death penalty at trial; in another, an innocent defendant had pled guilty to avoid the death penalty; and at least six additional exonerations were the product of witnesses having falsely implicated innocent defendants after police had threatened the witness or a loved one with the death penalty unless the witness cooperated with the investigation. The Registry's companion report, Race and Wrongful Convictions in the United States, analyzes exonerations for murder, sexual assault, and drug crimes since 1989. The report found that black people are seven times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder than white people and that African Americans imprisoned for murder are more likely to be innocent if they were convicted of killing white victims. Police officers were more likely to have committed misconduct in the cases in which black defendants were exonerated of murder than in exonerations of white murder defendants. In addition, justice was delayed in exonerations of black murder defendants, who, on average, waited three years longer than whites before being released from prison. An analysis of the DPIC death-row exoneration database corroborates the National Registry's conclusions: 16 of the last 18 death-row exonerations had police or prosecutorial misconduct as their primary cause. 18 of the exonerees in the last 25 misconduct-related death-row exonerations are black. While 68.8% of wrongly convicted non-black death-row exonerees were exonerated in 10 years or less, it took the judicial system 11 years or more to exonerate 57.3% of the wrongly convicted black death-row exonerees. 84.6% of all cases in which exoneration took 26 years or more involved black defendants.

Federal Appeals Court Overturns Tennessee Death Penalty as a Result of Prosecutorial Misconduct

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit overturned the conviction and death sentence of Tennessee death-row prisoner Andrew Lee Thomas, Jr. on February 24, ruling that Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich had unconstitutionally withheld evidence that a key prosecution witness had been paid for her cooperation in the case and then elicited perjured testimony from the witness lying about the payment. Weirich is currently facing ethical charges from the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility arising out of misconduct in another murder trial, State v. Noura Jackson, in which the Tennessee Supreme Court found that Weirich had failed to disclose exculpatory evidence to the defense and had improperly commented on the defendant's decision not to testify. According to the court's ruling in Thomas's case, his former girlfriend, Angela Jackson, had provided "the only reliable testimony placing Thomas at the scene of the shooting." During trial, Weirich asked Jackson: "Have you collected one red cent for this?" Jackson replied, "No, ma'am. I have not." In fact, Jackson had been paid $750 by the FBI on behalf of the joint state and federal Safe Streets Task Force. Calling Weirich's failure to disclose the payment “egregious,” the court said the "prosecutor had a duty to disclose this payment rather than allow the witness to commit perjury by denying its existence." Shelby County, where Thomas was tried, is among the 2% of U.S. counties that account for a majority of all death sentences imposed in the United States. Its county prosecutors have been dogged by charges of misconduct. In 2014, Weirich defended the conduct of Tom Henderson, a veteran homicide prosecutor in her office who had been censured by the Tennessee Supreme Court for misconduct in the capital trial of Michael Rimmer after a judge had found that Henderson had made “blatantly false, inappropriate and ethically questionable” statements to the Court and defense counsel about the existence of exculpatory evidence, “purposefully misled counsel with regard to the evidence,” and withheld exculpatory evidence he was constitutionally required to disclose.

New Podcast: DPIC Interviews Death-Row Exoneree Isaiah McCoy

Saying "I’m young, I have a lot of energy, and I’m up to the task of fighting for the rights of others,” death-row exoneree Isaiah McCoy (pictured, center) and his attorneys spoke with DPIC about his wrongful conviction, his exoneration, and his future. Just weeks after his January 19, 2017 exoneration from Delaware's death row, McCoy and lawyers Michael Wiseman and Herbert Mondros (pictured with McCoy) spoke with Robin Konrad, DPIC's Director of Research and Special Projects as part of the Discussions with DPIC podcast series. McCoy's case featured several systemic problems that plague the death penalty system: a lack of physical evidence, eyewitnesses who received deals from the prosecutor and told multiple versions of the story about the crime, a non-unanimous jury recommendation for a death sentence, and a prosecutor whose misconduct in the case was so outrageous that he was suspended from practicing law. McCoy—the nation's 157th death row exoneree—and his attorneys explain how these factors contributed to his wrongful conviction, discuss his efforts to be exonerated, and describe McCoy's life since exoneration. In January 2015, the Delaware Supreme Court granted McCoy a new trial as a result of "pervasive prosecutorial misconduct that permeated" his trial. In the podcast, McCoy shares his views on reforms that could help prevent future wrongful convictions. "A lot of these prosecutors, they've built a culture at their offices where they don't care whether a person is guilty or innocent. Their only goal is to win by any means necessary," McCoy says. "So, I think that's something we must change, in order for the scales of justice to be even." He advises others facing wrongful convictions to educate themselves about the legal system, reach out to organizations for help, and "be steadfast." He said that he plans to use his experiences to protest mass incarceration and assist others who have been wrongfully convicted.

Texas Prisoner Seeks Stay of Execution Based on Claims of Innocence, Discriminatory Jury Selection, Junk Science

Alleging wrongful prosecution, Texas death row prisoner Terry Edwards (pictured), who is scheduled for execution on January 26, is seeking a stay of execution and an opportunity to present new evidence that his case was tainted by racially-discriminatory jury selection, prosecutorial misconduct, and false and misleading forensic testimony. Edwards was prosecuted by Dallas County assistant district attorney Thomas D'Amore, who, the defense says, was lead prosecutor in at least three other cases in which defendants were exonerated after similar misconduct was disclosed. The Dallas DA's office fired D'Amore in 2006. Edwards, who had no prior history of violence, says that he was not the triggerman in a robbery-murder that prosecutors say he committed with his cousin, and that the prosecution presented false expert testimony to bolster its claim that he was the killer. The cousin—who has an extensive history of violent recidivism—was charged with both murders but then permitted to plead guilty to only robbery, and is now eligible for parole. A state forensic analyst initially testified that no gunshot residue was detected on Edwards' hands when they were tested immediately after the crime. She changed her testimony on cross-examination, stating that one of three chemical elements associated with gunshot residue was found on Edwards hands and that he could have sweated or wiped away the other two. A former FBI agent who later reviewed the case has called that explanation "scientifically unsupportable," explaining that the components of gunshot residue increase or decrease together, and that particles from gunshot residue contain at least two of the three elements that are tested, making it impossible to wipe away two of the elements without wiping away the third. D'Amore and the same state forensic analyst were involved in the 1995 trial of Richard Miles, who was exonerated in 2012 after his lawyers found similar flaws in the analyst's forensic testimony. Defense lawyers also contend that D'Amore withheld evidence that eyewitnesses saw Edwards’ cousin inside the restaurant at the time of the murders and fleeing out the front door. Citing evidence strikingly similar to that presented in the recent Supreme Court case Foster v. Chatman, Edwards' lawyers also argue that his conviction by an all-White jury was the unconstitutional product of racial discrimination.

First-Degree Murder Charges Dropped Against Two Former Pennsylvania Death Row Prisoners With Innocence Claims

On December 22, Pennsylvania prosecutors dropped first-degree murder charges against two former Pennsylvania death row prisoners who have asserted their innocence for decades. In courtrooms 100 miles apart, Tyrone Moore and James Dennis entered no-contest pleas to charges of third-degree murder, avoiding retrials on the charges that had initially sent the men to death row and paving the way for their release. A Luzerne County judge sentenced Moore to 20 years and released him from prison for time served following his no contest plea. He had already served 34 years, 22 of them on death row for a murder during the course of a robbery at a veterinary office. A federal judge had granted Moore a new trial after he presented evidence of ineffective assistance of counsel, including his lawyer's failure to interview a co-defendant who testified in his own trial that Moore was not present at or involved in the robbery or killing. Before entering the plea, Moore reiterated that he is "wholeheartedly innocent" of the crime, and told the court, "I want to be home with my family." The victim's family supported the plea deal. In the second case, Dennis had spent 25 years on death row for the robbery and murder of a woman at a transportation terminal in Philadelphia. A federal judge overturned his conviction in 2013 as a result of multiple instances of prosecutorial misconduct, including suppressing evidence pointing to an alternate suspect who was a high school classmate of the victim and other evidence supporting Dennis' alibi. The court called the conviction "a grave miscarriage of justice," saying that Dennis had been convicted and sentenced to death "for a crime in all probability he did not commit." His attorney, Karl Schwartz, told the court, "James Dennis entered a no-contest plea, not a guilty plea, because he maintains the same position that he has maintained for 25 years: that he is innocent of this crime. He and his family have made this incredibly difficult decision based on his and their strong desire to have him home and free, [in] lieu of potentially years of continuing litigation." Dennis faces parole for an unrelated robbery conviction before he can be released.

OUTLIER COUNTIES: Orange County, California Plagued by Misconduct Scandals

Orange County, California imposed nine death sentences between 2010 and 2015, more than 99.8% of American counties, and ranking it among the 6 most prolific death-sentencing counties in the country during that period. Over the last four years, patterns of misconduct have been revealed in the Orange County District Attorney's Office, sheriff's office, and crime lab. In 2015, Judge Thomas Goethals disqualified District Attorney Tony Rackauckas (pictured) and the entire prosecutor's office from participating in the capital trial of Scott Dekraai because of systemic police and prosecutorial misconduct involving the deliberate and undisclosed use of prison informants to unconstitutionally elicit incriminating statements from defendants. A California appeals court, citing "[t]he magnitude of the systemic problems" in Orange County and the "cozy relationship" between local prosecutors and the sheriff's office, upheld the trial court's order. The sister of the victim in Dekraai's case asked the office to stop seeking the death penalty because the mishandling of the case had led to five years of delays. She called the death penalty a "false promise" for victims' families, yet the office continued to pursue a death sentence. Judge Goethals' ruling prompted the passage of a California law giving judges greater authority to remove prosecutors from cases in which they have committed misconduct, and to report misconduct to the state bar. It also led to a special committee report on the Orange County District Attorney's Office, which found a "failure of leadership" at the root of the misconduct, along with a "win-at-all-costs mentality." In mid-December, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it was opening an investigation into the county's use of jailhouse informants. Meanwhile, a motion by the Orange County Public Defender's Office filed in September accused the county crime lab of doctoring testimony to benefit the prosecution, after a senior forensic analyst offered contradictory testimony in two separate murder trials, each supporting the prosecution's case. Recent death sentences in Orange County show patterns of bias and dispropotionality. 89% of those sentenced to death from 2010-2015 were people of color, and 44% were Black, though Blacks make up just 2% of Orange County's population. Half of the 24 cases decided on direct appeal from 2006-2015 involved defendants with serious mental illness, brain damage, intellectual impairment, or who were under age 25 at the time of their crime.

OUTLIER COUNTIES: Miami-Dade Death Sentences Reflect Constitutional Defects, Misconduct

Miami-Dade County has historically been a significant contributor to Florida's death row and large proportions of its recent death sentences raise serious constitutional questions about the practices that result in death verdicts and the characteristics of the defendants who are sentenced to death. Miami-Dade imposed five death sentences between 2010 and 2015, placing it among the 16 counties that produced more death sentences than 99.5% of all U.S. counties. The questionable reliability of the Miami-Dade death penalty cases is illustrated by the characteristics of the seven cases that came before the Florida Supreme Court on direct appeal from 2006-2015. Six of those cases (86%) involved a non-unanimous jury recommendation for death, a practice the Florida Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional in October 2016. Miami-Dade had the second highest rate of prosecutorial misconduct among the 16 most prolific death-sentencing counties and nearly a third (29%) of the cases decided on direct appeal since 2006 involved misconduct. In reversing one of the cases for misconduct, the court said the prosecutor “appeared to be committed to winning a death recommendation rather than simply seeking justice.” In another, the court overturned the death sentence as a result of the prosecutor's "inflammatory, egregious, and legally improper closing argument.” One former Assistant State Attorney, who was credited with sending more people to death row than any other Florida prosecutor, spoke disparagingly of the role of mitigating evidence in capital cases, saying, “Of course I feel bad that society has created a monster, but should the bad background in the past disable us from imposing an appropriate punishment now?” And the defendants judges sentenced to death in four of the cases had presented significant mitigating evidence that made them nearly indistinguishable from those who are exempt from capital punishment as a result of their age or mental health status. Yet such a full presentation of mitigating evidence was atypical in the cases that resulted in death verdicts. The lawyers in those cases presented an average of one day of mitigating evidence. The new death sentences also reflect the role of race. All five of the defendants sentenced to death in Miami-Dade from 2010-2015 were Black or Latino, and a study of sentencing rates in Florida found that defendants are 6.5 times more likely to be executed if the victim is a White female than if the victim is a Black male.

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