Court victory bolsters pressure to expose prosecutorial misconduct

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A group of law professors has released new complaints against 17 New York prosecutors, pointing to behavior that in many cases has sent innocent people to jail, the latest salvo in an accountability push that was reignited last month by a federal court.

The Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office has discovered that a prosecutor withheld key evidence during a trial, sending an innocent man to prison for more than 24 years. Another refused to tell a jury about the lenient plea deals a key witness received in exchange for his testimony, sending two men to prison for 17 years. A third allowed a witness to lie; the defendant in this case spent almost six years in prison.

A number of recent grievances filed by law professors relate to cases from the early 1990s, when crime was high and there was political pressure to secure convictions. The professors, who teach primarily in New York schools, aim to draw public attention to prosecutorial misconduct and boost the state’s disciplinary process.

In each of the complaints, a judge or district attorney’s office had previously admitted wrongdoing. But there were no public disciplinary records for any of the prosecutors, many of whom still work in the city’s court system. One of them gave a course on legal ethics.

“It’s relatively easy to land on your feet and go somewhere else,” said Daniel Medwed, one of six law professors, who in addition to posting the complaints online, took the grievances to the law committees. state responsible for disciplining lawyers. Grievances, which are reviewed by panels made up of lawyers and non-lawyers, can lead to a public reprimand, suspension, or even disbarment. But experts say this rarely happens and complaints often remain private.

“Most prosecutors don’t get sanctioned and most lawyers don’t get sanctioned,” said Bruce Green, who directs a center for legal ethics at Fordham University. Mr. Green is not among the law professors who filed the complaints.

He was not sure if the teachers could publish their complaints publicly. After filing an initial set of grievances last year, they were warned by the city’s top lawyer, James Johnson, that releasing the records was a violation of state law that keeps disciplinary records confidential. lawyers.

The law professors, working in partnership with Civil Rights Corps, a non-profit organization that fights for criminal justice reform, have filed suit against Mr Johnson’s successor, Georgia Pestana, as well as the district attorney of Queens and several officials of the grievance committee. In June, a federal judge, Victor Marrero, ruled in their favor, claiming that the First Amendment prohibited the state from blocking the actions of professors. Parts of the decision are on appeal, but in the meantime the teachers have filed a new round of complaints.

The complaints come at a time of uncertainty for future prosecutions. While prosecutors seeking to reform the criminal justice system have continued to win elections, rising gun crime and changing perceptions of crime have globally disrupted the momentum of the progressive prosecutor movement. Those crosswinds contributed to the high-profile recall of San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin.

Law professors say the current climate makes it all the more important to illuminate wrongdoing by the prosecution. Mr. Medwed, who teaches at Northeastern University in Massachusetts, cited Mr. Boudin’s recall and the opposition facing Los Angeles Attorney George Gascon, who also faces a recall effort. Mr Medwed said “more conservative crime control elements are afoot”, which could lead to renewed pressure on prosecutors to secure convictions.

“That’s all the more reason for there to be greater transparency and accountability,” Medwed said.

One of the cases brought to light by the professors dates back to the winter of 1991, when a man named Andre Hatchett was arrested by the police a week after the discovery of a murdered woman.

Only one witness – Jerry Williams, who had been arrested in an unrelated burglary – identified Mr Hatchett as the perpetrator, having initially identified another man.

The prosecutor, Nicholas Fengos, did not alert Mr Hatchett’s lawyer of the conflicting identifications. Nor did Mr. Fengos dispute an inconsistency between what Mr. Williams told investigators – that he had used crack cocaine on the day of the homicide – and what he told the jury that he had never used drugs. Despite these and other improbabilities in the account of Mr. Williams’ murder, Mr. Fengos sued and won a conviction.

Mr Hatchett spent nearly 25 years in prison before the King County District Attorney’s Office, after reviewing his case, recommended that a court overturn the conviction. Mr. Hatchett later won a wrongful conviction lawsuit for $12 million.

The professors are asking that Mr. Fengos, who works for the state prison system and remains a licensed attorney, be suspended or disbarred. Mr. Fengos did not respond to voicemail messages seeking comment.

When asked why her group is focusing on cases that were handled decades ago, often by overzealous officials, Cynthia Godsoe, a professor at Brooklyn Law School, said prosecutors weren’t supposed to work diligently.

“Their mandate is to act in the interests of justice,” she said. “If people don’t want to do that and are very careful to play by the rules – that’s what they’re supposed to do – then they shouldn’t be prosecutors.”

The professors hope that public pressure will compel grievance committees to take a closer look at their complaints. Laws protect prosecutors from civil pressures, and committees allow lawyers to discipline each other in a system where there is little oversight.

Late last year, the Chief Justice of New York appointed three members to a new state commission on the conduct of prosecutors. But the commission has little independent disciplinary power; the law requires him to submit his findings to the grievance committees, in which case the committees would again be liable for any consequences.

The commission has not yet taken any public action. One of his appointees, Michael A. Simons, the dean of the law school at St. John’s University, did not respond to a request for comment. And so the professors, fresh from their trial, still see a place for their work.

“We’re trying to make systemic changes, to get the grievance board or more broadly the government to do their job,” Ms Godsoe said. “We want to highlight: What are they really doing? People have the right to know. »

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