The investigation uncovered only one prosecutor, former Queens assistant district attorney Claude Stuart, who was disciplined for his actions and eventually lost his job after several abuses including withholding evidence from the defense, manipulating evidence and lying to a trial judge. In two of those cases the convictions were overturned.
"It's an insidious system," said Marvin Schechter, a defense attorney and chairman of the criminal justice section of the New York State Bar Association. "Prosecutors engage in misconduct because they know they can get away with it." (Schechter said he was expressing his own opinion, not that of his bar section.)
New York City's district attorneys disagree and call these errors limited in scope. But in response to those isolated instances, some have gone a step further by establishing internal units that examine claims of abuse. But as long as the abuse goes unchecked, academics and defense lawyers say prosecutors will continue doing what they’re doing.
"If you're in the Olympics and you're in a race and you win and then it's found that you took steroids, they take your medal away," said Larry Goldman, a former Manhattan prosecutor who is now a defense attorney. "No one says, ‘Oh well, it doesn't matter if you took steroids, you would've won anyway.'"
The obligation to disclose potentially important evidence to defense lawyers has long been a vital part of the criminal justice system, yet the new analysis showed that violations involving withholding evidence were the most common form of serious misconduct by city prosecutors.
The New York State Bar Association has recently taken on the issue of how to define prosecutorial misconduct and what should be done about it as part of a larger initiative to address wrongful convictions. And while state legislators have introduced several bills incorporating the bar association's ideas, none have gained much traction. The state’s District Attorneys Association has outright opposed them, and other city district attorneys have said they could adversely affect public safety and are unnecessary in light of their own efforts to improve training and oversight.
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For more background on this issue, download the Northern California Innocence Project report on prosecutorial misconduct.
You can also read the Innocence Project’s report: Court Findings of Prosecutorial Misconduct Claims in Post-Conviction Appeals and Civil Suits Among the First 255 DNA Exoneration Cases