STUDIES: USA Today Investigation Reveals Prosecutorial Misconduct in Federal Cases

An in-depth investigation conducted by USA Today found 201 criminal cases in which federal judges determined that U.S. Department of Justice prosecutors violated laws or ethics rules, including the recent prosecution of Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska. The investigation looked at cases since 1997, when Congress enacted a law aimed at ending prosecutorial misconduct. Some of the violations reviewed by USA Today resulted in judges throwing out charges, overturning convictions or rebuking prosecutors. Of the 201 cases, 47 ended in the exoneration and release of the defendant after the violations surfaced. Nino Lyons, for example, was convicted of drug trafficking based on suspicious testimony by prison inmates who were promised early release in exchange for their cooperation. By luck, one of Lyons’s lawyers discovered a discrepancy in one of the witness’s testimony. This led him to hundreds of pages of reports that the prosecution never disclosed. Lyons’s conviction was overturned and he was declared innocent. In another case, federal courts blocked prosecutors from seeking the death penalty for a fatal robbery because prosecutors failed to turn over evidence. Bennett Gershman, an expert on prosecutorial misconduct, told USA Today that the abuses are becoming systemic and that the system is not able to control such behavior. With respect to consequences for prosecutors who break the rules, the paper could identify only one federal prosecutor who was barred even temporarily from practicing law for misconduct during the past 12 years.

(B. Heath and K. McCoy, “Prosecutors’ conduct can tip justice scales,” USA Today, September 23, 2010). See Innocence, Prosecutorial Misconduct, and Federal Death Penalty.