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

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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News

Dec 20, 2023

Batson Relief for Another Mississippi Prisoner Prosecuted by Doug Evans

On December 12, 2023 U.S. District Judge Michael P. Mills over­turned Terry Pitchford’s death sen­tence and ordered Mississippi to retry him in 6 months or release him from cus­tody. Judge Mills found that the orig­i­nal tri­al judge failed to allow the defense to prop­er­ly chal­lenge the exclu­sion of Black jurors by now-retired District Attorney Doug Evans, the same pros­e­cu­tor who pros­e­cut­ed Curtis Flowers. This court can­not ignore the notion that Pitchford was seem­ing­ly giv­en no chance to rebut the state’s expla­na­tions and prove pur­pose­ful dis­crim­i­na­tion,” Judge Mills wrote.

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News

Nov 15, 2023

Randomness and Prosecutorial Misconduct in Death Penalty Cases Highlighted in South Carolina

A recent arti­cle in the Post and Courier details research into the rea­sons why 18 death sen­tences have been over­turned in South Carolina, find­ing one of the main rea­sons to be pros­e­cu­to­r­i­al mis­con­duct. Research found that 11 of the 18 pris­on­ers received new sen­tences because of pros­e­cu­to­r­i­al mis­con­duct, while the oth­er sev­en received new sen­tences after the deci­sion in Atkins v. Virginia because they had intel­lec­tu­al disability.

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News

Sep 27, 2023

Former Texas Death Row Prisoner Clinton Young Sues Prosecutor for Misconduct

On September 18, 2023, for­mer Texas death-sen­tenced pris­on­er Clinton Young filed a fed­er­al civ­il rights law­suit in the Western District of Texas, accus­ing two Midland County dis­trict attor­neys, the pros­e­cu­tor on his case, and Midland County itself, for vio­lat­ing his con­sti­tu­tion­al right to a fair tri­al. Just four months after his 18th birth­day in 2001, Mr. Young and two oth­ers, David Page and Darnell McCoy, went on a drug-induced spree that result­ed in the deaths of two indi­vid­u­als. In 2003, Mr. Young was sen­tenced to death for these mur­ders. He…

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News

Jul 28, 2023

Louisiana Pardon Board Declines to Consider 56 Death Row Clemency Petitions Without Merits Review

On July 24, 2023, the Louisiana Board of Pardons and Parole set aside all 56 clemen­cy appli­ca­tions filed by near­ly every death-sen­tenced pris­on­er in Louisiana last month with­out review­ing the mer­its of a sin­gle one of them. The pris­on­ers asked for their sen­tences to be com­mut­ed to life with­out parole, but the Board made its deci­sion to return the appli­ca­tions based on an advi­so­ry, non­bind­ing opin­ion from the Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry. Attorneys for death row pris­on­ers have respond­ed by argu­ing that the Attorney General’s office mis­in­ter­pret­ed the language…

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