Prosecutorial misconduct and police misconduct played a part in 79 percent of the 54 wrongful homicide convictions announced in 2018 and reported last year in the National Registry of Exonerations’ report, Exonerations 2018.
These figures are not an anomaly.
Perfect Storms Send Innocent Man to Prison for 28 Years
On January 22, 2020, Theophalis Wilson was freed from a Pennsylvania prison where he had spent 28 years for a triple homicide he did not commit. The office of current reform-minded Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner said the Wilson case was a “perfect storm” of prosecutorial misconduct, ineffective assistance by defense counsel, and false testimony.
We recently stated, and here again restate, that prosecutorial misconduct should never be allowed to go unchecked, regardless of the stage of the trial.
The simple truth is this: prosecutors engage in misconduct because they know, more often than not, they can get away with it. It is the defense attorney’s job to endeavor they do not get away with it unnoticed. But, unfortunately, misconduct is often undetectable when committed by skilled prosecutors bent on breaking the rules inside a system that places the resources and weigh of the government against an individual defendant.
The failure of Theophalis Wilson’s attorney to fulfill this ethical duty played a role cost his client 28 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, it is the duty of prosecutors to assure that justice is done. This includes longstanding rules that they disclose favorable evidences and prevent false testimony.
Longtime civil rights attorney Krasner promised Philadelphians a “criminal justice revolution” when he was swept into office by the Democratic wave of 2018. During his first week in office, Krasner fired 31 prosecutors he did not feel could meet his goal of transformational reform. The district attorney also released a list of 29 Philadelphia police officers who had been involved in serious allegations of misconduct.
US Attorney General Attacks Criminal Justice Reformers
Progressive, reform-minded district attorneys like Larry Krasner drew the ire of U.S. Attorney General William Barr in a “despicable speech” last August before the Fraternal Order of Police in New Orleans.
Charging that these reform minded district attorneys (like Krasner and Rachael Rollins in Suffolk County, Mass.) ambushed the old order of corrupt district attorneys with an infusion of large donations from criminal justice reform advocates and organizations, the attorney general, who has his own personal problems with official corruption and professional misconduct, said the agendas of these prosecutors would lead to more crime.
Conservative Republican lawmakers, Philadelphia’s Fraternal Order of Police, and the Trump-appointed U.S. Attorney in Philadelphia have all joined in highly vocal and vitriolic attacks on Krasner’s criminal justice reforms. These so-called public servants, like AG Barr, want the old order of corrupt prosecutors and “bad cops” to return to power to serve the interests of the wealthy while keeping the boot of oppression on the poor and disadvantaged.
But if district attorneys like Krasner and St. Louis District Attorney Wesley Bell have anything to do with it, progressive criminal justice reforms will not be curtailed by old order fear mongering attacks and political corruption.
Bell told NBC News in August 2019 that “the biggest impact on the justice system starts with the prosecutor’s office.” The first African-American prosecuting attorney in St. Louis County’s history added: “This is just too important for us to keep on the back burner and sweep under the rug as we’ve done for so long with respect to DA races across the country.”
Brandon Evans, national political director for Real Justice PAC that supports reformist district attorneys, told NBC News that these progressive prosecutors have sparked a “culture shift around what we’ve seen and heard with the possibility of what prosecutors can do.”
Evans added that these progressive, almost exclusively Democratic reformist district attorneys are aggressively opposed by the prison industrial complex and others who profit from the culture of over-policing and over-prosecution in this country, who, by the way, overwhelmingly support the likes of Republican Attorney General Barr.
Bexar County DA Joins Reformers
But Bexar County, Texas progressive district attorney, Joe Gonzales, is undeterred. He told NBC News:
“I believe jail is for people that we’re afraid of, not for people that commit minor offenses that are nonviolent.
“One of the reasons that I believe in the restorative justice is because punishment, like life, is gray. It’s not just black and white. There’s a lot of gray and there’s a lot of opportunity for someone like me to give people a second chance.”
Gonzales predicted, and we hope he is correct, that the “progressive prosecutor movement” is gaining momentum and more reform-minded prosecutors will be elected across the country.
We hope the San Antonio district attorney is right. What we do know is that there will likely be fewer wrongful convictions caused by prosecutorial misconduct because of prosecutors like Gonzales, Krasner, Bell, and Rollins.