Bad prosecutors are not a new phenomenon. They have existed since the Founders envisioned an adversarial judicial process when forming the United States of America. For more than 230 years, bad prosecutors have displayed a propensity to lie, embellish, suppress evidence, manufacture false evidence, suborn perjury, and pursue criminal convictions more for self-aggrandizement and “win at all cost” than to achieve justice for society.
The Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) has identified more than 600 capital cases in which either a capital conviction or a death sentence, or a death row exoneree was wrongfully convicted because of prosecutorial misconduct. The DPIC reports that prosecutorial misconduct is the “leading cause” of the wrongful convictions that sent innocent people to death row with the explicit intent to have the state execute those individuals.
It is difficult to imagine a more methodical cruelty.
Although not as egregious, a recent example emerged in a California attempted murder case.
In 1990 a crowd of spectators was leaving a football game in Baldwin Park, located in east Los Angeles, when three attackers opened fire on a vehicle containing six teenagers the attackers mistook as rival gang members. Two of the teenagers were wounded but survived the assault.
Daniel Saldana, a 22-year-old construction worker at the time, was charged and convicted of six counts of attempted murder and one count of shooting at an occupied vehicle. He was sentenced to 45 years to life for the convictions.
In 2017, an inmate appearing before the California parole board told the board members that Saldana was not involved in the 1990 shooting incident, and, in fact, was not even present when the shooting took place.
An assistant district attorney with the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office was present at the hearing when the inmate provided information about Saldana’s innocence. The ADA apparently said nothing about the exonerating evidence to his superiors, and if he did, they all chose to conceal the information and not act on it. The ADA certainly did not share the exonerating information with Saldana’s attorney or with Saldana himself.
Current reform-minded L.A. County district attorney George Gascon, who in the last two months has charged seven local and state law enforcement officers with the unlawful killing of suspects, learned this past February about the 2017 exonerating information given to the parole board about Saldana. The district attorney immediately ordered his office to investigate the information.
On May 26, 2023, Gascon announced that his office had officially exonerated Saldana and had the 55-year-old man set free after 33 years of wrongful imprisonment. Six of those years were the responsibility of the assistant district attorney, who did nothing about the 2017 exonerating information. Saldana probably would have died in the California prison system had Gascon, who was elected in 2020, not implemented reforms like investigating viable claims of innocence.
Appearing with Saldana upon his release from prison, Gascon personally apologized to the exoneree and his family:
“I know that this won’t bring you back the decades you endured in prison,” he said. “But I hope our apology brings you some small comfort to you as you begin your new life … Not only is this a tragedy to force people into prison for a crime they did not commit, but every time that an injustice of this magnitude takes place, the real people responsible are still out there to commit other crimes.”
The ADA was part of the previous district attorney’s office that was riddled with controversy and ethical lapses. It is unclear from the public record whether the ADA, who concealed or suppressed the 2017 exonerating evidence, remained with the Gascon’s office after the 2020 election or whether they were disciplined by the State Bar. It can be assumed that they packed his corrupt bags and disappeared into the legal profession, where they will likely face future charges of providing ineffective, unethical assistance to their clients.
Bad prosecutors do not make good attorneys, and particularly, they do not make good criminal defense attorneys.