Why Prosecutors Rarely Admit Mistakes

Why Prosecutors Rarely Admit Mistakes February 7, 2013

We give an astonishing amount of power to criminal prosecutors in this country, power that is often abused. And when they get it wrong, which happens a lot more often than most people would ever believe, getting them to admit it is very, very difficult. The Cleveland Plain Dealer reports on some local examples:

Soon after Summit County Common Pleas Judge Judy Hunter exonerated Douglas Prade last week in the slaying of his former wife, prosecutors announced they would appeal.

At the same time, Cuyahoga County prosecutors said they would continue to appeal Joseph D’Ambrosio’s case — days after a judge ruled that he was wrongfully imprisoned for a slaying that put him on death row for about 21 years.

The cases highlight a mindset under which some prosecutors have continued their legal assaults on defendants after judges — following thorough, articulated reviews — attacked government attorneys as lacking even the basics needed to take their cases to trial…

“There is a litany of cases where some prosecutors have fought to keep convictions rather than work to find justice,” said Michael Benza, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University who also represented Brett Hartman. The state executed Hartman in November for the slaying of a woman in Summit County.

“It’s very difficult for some prosecutors to admit that they have made a mistake,” Benza said. “If you make a mistake in this case, how many other mistakes have you made?”

And that is exactly the problem. Not only is it almost impossible to get them to admit to a wrongful conviction, they generally fight tooth and nail to prevent even the possibility of ever finding out if there was a wrongful conviction. In many cases, they fight against the testing of DNA evidence that could prove someone’s innocence after conviction, as they fought on the wrong side (along with the Obama administration) with the Supreme Court against a due process right to access and test DNA evidence.

There are exceptions, of course. Craig Watkins, the district attorney in Dallas, has established in his office a group that goes through old convictions to see if any of them were suspect, and he’s worked hand in hand with the Texas Innocence Project to prevent wrongful convictions in his district. As a result, more men have been exonerated in his district than any other. If you just look, wrongful convictions aren’t hard to find.

But too many prosecutors spend their time fighting against finding and preventing wrongful convictions because the incentives are all wrong. They’re afraid that if they lose one case, it will cast doubts on their infallibility and make people question the legitimacy of the criminal justice system. Which sounds like a great argument in favor of seeking out wrongful convictions, not covering them up. People should doubt the criminal justice system.

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