Policy Issues

Prosecutorial Accountability

Official misconduct is rampant in death penalty cases. It is a leading cause of wrongful convictions, and DPIC has identified more than 550 cases in which a capital conviction or death sentence was overturned as a result of prosecutorial misconduct.

[W]hile [a pros­e­cu­tor] may strike hard blows, he is not at lib­er­ty to strike foul ones. It is as much his duty to refrain from improp­er meth­ods cal­cu­lat­ed to pro­duce a wrong­ful con­vic­tion as it is to use every legit­i­mate means to bring about a just one.

Berger v. United States, 295 U.S. 78, 88 (1935).

Overview

Prosecutors wield enormous power in the death penalty system. That power is susceptible to abuse, as evidenced by the numerous death penalty cases that have been reversed as a result of misconduct by prosecutors and police. Official misconduct is a leading cause of the wrongful murder convictions associated with death-row exonerations.

Prosecutorial misconduct can take many forms. The most well-publicized type of misconduct involves the withholding of potentially exculpatory evidence, in violation of the U.S. Supreme Court case, Brady v. Maryland. It can also encompass the exclusion of people of color from juries, in violation of Batson v. Kentucky. All-white and nearly all-white juries have been found to be more conviction-prone and more likely to impose death sentences.

Misconduct can also taint the evidence presented in a case, especially when witnesses are coerced or threatened into testifying, or when prosecutors knowingly present false witness testimony or false or inflammatory argument to the jury. Prosecutors are required to disclose any benefits offered to witnesses, including promises of reduced charges or sentences or other favorable treatment. They can violate the defendant’s rights and deprive the jury of needed information by withholding this information.

At Issue

While a growing number of prosecutors’ offices have begun to address misconduct through reform measures and conviction integrity units, misconduct continues to affect a significant number of cases. Many defendants who were convicted or sentenced to death as a result of undisclosed or unredressed misconduct have already been executed, and others face the difficult task of convincing a court not only that misconduct took place, but that it was harmful to their case. By its nature, much prosecutorial misconduct — especially Brady violations — involves concealment, and ongoing attempts to keep the misconduct hidden mean that defendants lack the evidence to prove that their convictions were unconstitutionally obtained through improper means.

What DPIC Offers

DPIC has compiled resources and studies from academic researchers and organizations like the Columbia Law School Broken System study, the Habeas Assistance Project, the Fair Punishment Project, and the National Registry of Exonerations. DPIC’s groundbreaking 2013 report, The 2% Death Penalty, highlights some of the ways in which overuse of capital punishment is linked to prosecutorial overreach and misconduct.

DPIC has identified more than 550 prosecutorial misconduct reversals and exonerations in capital cases. This means that at least 5.6% of death sentences imposed since 1972 have been reversed for prosecutorial misconduct or resulted in a misconduct exoneration. This group of cases provides only a glimpse of the prosecutorial misconduct that occurs in the death penalty context. The list does not include cases in which prosecutors committed misconduct but courts denied relief on grounds of supposed immateriality or harmless error. It also does not include misconduct reversals of capitally charged crimes that resulted in life sentences.

For more information on the cases included in this dataset, see DPIC’s background document here. See a list of the cases here. We wel­come any addi­tions or cor­rec­tions. To cor­rect an error or pro­vide miss­ing infor­ma­tion, please noti­fy us by email and send doc­u­men­ta­tion of the cor­rect infor­ma­tion to [email protected]

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