Policy Issues

Prosecutorial Accountability

Official misconduct is rampant in death penalty cases and is a leading cause of wrongful convictions. DPIC has identified more than 600 instances in which a capital conviction or death sentence has been overturned or a death-row exoneree was wrongfully convicted 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 600 prosecutorial misconduct reversals and exonerations in capital cases. This means that more than 6.3% of all 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 prosecutorial-accountability@deathpenaltyinfo.org.

News & Developments


News

Jan 13, 2023

Supreme Court Reverses Texas Court Decision Based on Prosecutor’s Admission About Flawed Forensic Evidence

The U.S. Supreme Court has reversed the denial of relief to a Texas death-row pris­on­er whose request for new tri­al is sup­port­ed by local pros­e­cu­tors. In a two-sen­tence deci­sion, the Court grant­ed cer­tio­rari to Areli Escobar, vacat­ed the judg­ment of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (TCCA), and sent the case back for recon­sid­er­a­tion. The Court’s sum­ma­ry rever­sal relied on Travis County pros­e­cu­tors’ admis­sion that Escobar’s con­vic­tion is based on flawed and mis­lead­ing foren­sic evidence.”

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News

Apr 26, 2024

Federal Judge Orders Alameda County District Attorney to Review 35 Capital Cases Following Disclosure of Prosecutorial Misconduct in Jury Selection

On April 22, 2024, Alameda County District Attorney Pamela Price announced that her office was ordered by a fed­er­al judge to review 35 death penal­ty con­vic­tions after the dis­clo­sure of evi­dence that sev­er­al pros­e­cu­tors inten­tion­al­ly exclud­ed Black and Jewish peo­ple from serv­ing on a cap­i­tal mur­der tri­al in 1995. In a press con­fer­ence, DA Price indi­cat­ed that her office dis­cov­ered the hand­writ­ten notes of for­mer pros­e­cu­tors that include dis­crim­i­na­to­ry jury selec­tion tac­tics, sug­gest­ing seri­ous mis­con­duct” per­me­at­ed the office in the 1990s. It’s not lim­it­ed to one or two pros­e­cu­tors, but…

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News

Apr 16, 2024

Trial Judge Signs Agreed Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law, Recommending Melissa Lucio’s Conviction and Death Sentence Be Overturned

On April 12, 2024, Judge Arturo Nelson signed an Agreed Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law sub­mit­ted by the pros­e­cu­tion and defense stat­ing that Melissa Lucio (pic­tured) was not giv­en access to favor­able infor­ma­tion in the prosecution’s pos­ses­sion at the time of tri­al. The acknowl­edge­ment of this con­sti­tu­tion­al error result­ed in Judge Nelson’s rec­om­men­da­tion to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (TCCA) that Ms. Lucio’s con­vic­tion and death sen­tence be over­turned. The rul­ing marks the lat­est chap­ter in a saga that saw Ms. Lucio nar­row­ly avoid an exe­cu­tion date…

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News

Apr 11, 2024

Rare Agreement Between District Attorney and Defense Counsel Acknowledge Prosecutorial Misconduct and Need for New Trial for Melissa Lucio

On April 5, 2024, Cameron County District Attorney Luis Saenz and Innocence Project attor­ney Vanessa Potkin released a joint state­ment regard­ing Melissa Lucio’s case, which has been pend­ing addi­tion­al review for almost two years. On January 11, 2023, the par­ties sub­mit­ted an Agreed Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law stat­ing that the defense was not giv­en access to favor­able infor­ma­tion in the prosecution’s pos­ses­sion at tri­al, an error that they agree should enti­tle Ms. Lucio to a new tri­al. Under Texas pro­ce­dure the tri­al court must make a recommendation…

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News

Mar 28, 2024

OP-ED: Black Woman Denied Opportunity to Serve as a Juror in Georgia Capital Trial Cites Concerns About Racial Bias

In a March 26, 2024, op-ed pub­lished in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Patricia McTier, a Georgia nurse, recounts her expe­ri­ence being removed from a jury pool in 1998 for what she calls a ques­tion­able rea­son” relat­ed to her race. Born and raised in Appling County, Georgia, Ms. McTier grew up in the Jim Crow era and writes that she enter[ed] adult­hood dur­ing a time of great social change,” where she grew to cher­ish our American sys­tem of jus­tice and the Constitution that endows all of us with equal rights.” In September…

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News

Mar 13, 2024

Tennessee Death Row Prisoner’s New Appeal Alleges Innocence, Prosecutorial Misconduct, and Ineffective Counsel

Jessie Dotson, a man sen­tenced to death for killing six peo­ple in 2008 in the Binghampton neigh­bor­hood of Memphis, Tennessee, has filed a peti­tion for a writ of a habeas cor­pus ask­ing a judge to vacate his con­vic­tion and death sen­tence. His peti­tion alleges that he is inno­cent, that police coerced him to false­ly con­fess, and that a num­ber of pros­e­cu­to­r­i­al and defense errors occurred at tri­al. Mr. Dotson has been on death row since 2008, when he was sen­tenced to death for the mur­ders of four adults, includ­ing his…

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News

Feb 22, 2024

Texas Prisoner Faces Execution Despite Doubts About His Guilt and Refusal of Courts to Assess New Evidence

Ivan Cantu is sched­uled to be exe­cut­ed on February 28, 2024, although Texas courts have refused to con­sid­er new evi­dence in his case that may prove he was wrong­ful­ly con­vict­ed. Mr. Cantu was sen­tenced to death in Collin County for the mur­der of his cousin and his cousin’s fiancée in November 2000. Texas sched­uled an exe­cu­tion date for Mr. Cantu in April 2023, but a last-minute appeal describ­ing new evi­dence of false wit­ness tes­ti­mo­ny pro­vid­ed grounds for a stay of exe­cu­tion. However, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (TCCA) overturned…

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News

Feb 20, 2024

Op-Ed: Law Professor Stephen Bright Encourages SCOTUS to Review Egregious Racial Discrimination” in Georgia Death Row Prisoner’s Case

In a February 14, 2024 op-ed pub­lished in the Washington Post, the long­time defense lawyer, for­mer direc­tor of the Southern Center for Human Rights, and law pro­fes­sor Stephen Bright high­lights the con­tin­ued ille­gal exclu­sion of Black jurors in vio­la­tion of Batson v. Kennedy (1986). The op-ed titled, Struck from a jury for being Black? It still hap­pens all too often,” uses the case of Georgia death-sen­tenced pris­on­er Warren King, whose peti­tion the U.S. Supreme Court is expect­ed to review on February 23, as the lat­est exam­ple of the per­sis­tent prac­tice. The…

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News

Jan 31, 2024

Examining the Implications of Uncontested Prosecutor Elections in Ohio

In a new arti­cle from Bolts, jour­nal­ist Daniel Nichanian writes about the dearth of can­di­dates in Ohio’s coun­ty pros­e­cu­tor elec­tions. Of the 27 coun­ties with more than 100,000 res­i­dents in Ohio, 70 per­cent drew just one can­di­date” to run for elec­tion or reelec­tion as coun­ty pros­e­cu­tor. Only 15 of Ohio’s 88 pros­e­cu­tor elec­tions this year drew mul­ti­ple can­di­dates by the December dead­line, accord­ing to Bolts’ research: This means that the vast major­i­ty of the state’s pros­e­cut­ing attor­neys are run­ning unop­posed this year; Bolts has con­firmed that no more than one can­di­date has…

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News

Jan 30, 2024

Louisiana Supreme Court Grants New Trial Based on Prosecutorial Misconduct while New Governor Landry Moves to Expand Methods of Execution and Restart Executions

On January 26, 2024, the Louisiana Supreme Court grant­ed a new tri­al to death-sen­tenced pris­on­er Darrell Robinson based on egre­gious pros­e­cu­to­r­i­al mis­con­duct. The Court held that Mr. Robinson did not receive a fair tri­al, or a ver­dict wor­thy of con­fi­dence.” Mr. Robinson’s quest to prove his inno­cence advances at the same time that Governor Jeff Landry seeks to expand the state’s meth­ods of exe­cu­tion and restart exe­cu­tions. During a tumul­tuous 2023 in which out­go­ing Governor John Bel Edwards sup­port­ed clemen­cy review for Louisiana’s entire death row, only to be blocked…

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News

Jan 22, 2024

Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Richard Glossip’s Appeal: High-Profile Innocence Case Where the State Supports Relief

On January 22, the Supreme Court grant­ed cer­tio­rari to Richard Glossip, sen­tenced to death in Oklahoma, whose inno­cence case has received inter­na­tion­al atten­tion. Mr. Glossip’s exe­cu­tion had been sched­uled for May 18, 2023, before the Court issued a stay on May 5 pend­ing the out­come of his peti­tions for cer­tio­rari. Mr. Glossip’s case is unusu­al in that the State of Oklahoma con­ced­ed error and sup­ports his request for a new tri­al. However, Mr. Glossip was forced to peti­tion the Supreme Court when the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals reject­ed a…

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