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Study: Prosecutorial Misconduct Helped Secure 550 Wrongful Death Penalty Convictions
End the death penalty now.
One of the more horrific things about the United States is that we, unlike nearly every other democracy on earth, still have the death penalty.
And the really horrifying thing about that is not just that we kill people who kill people to show people that killing people is wrong ... it's that we do it despite knowing we don't always get it right.
If we were a rational nation, we would look at the sheer number of exonerations of death row inmates — at least 189 since 1973 — and we would look at those who were wrongly executed, we would look at the statistics that say that it is likely that four percent of those on Death Row are innocent and we would say "You know, maybe we are not good enough at this for such a permanent solution." Hell, even if we just got it wrong once, we should have ended it. Because how on earth do you argue that killing innocent people is so wrong that it deserves the death penalty while also potentially killing innocent people with the death penalty?
A recent study conducted by the Death Penalty Information Center has found 550 cases in which a death penalty or capital conviction was overturned after the discovery of prosecutorial misconduct — which accounts for 5.6 percent all death penalty cases imposed in the last 50 years. This means that since 1972, 8,770 people have been sentenced to death and in 550 of those cases, there was enough prosecutorial misconduct to lead to a reversal or, in 121 of those cases, a full exoneration.
Thirty-five percent of these cases were Brady violations in which the prosecutor deliberately withheld exculpatory evidence. In 33 percent of the cases, the prosecutor made an improper argument — which "encompasses situations where the prosecution makes inflammatory, inappropriate, or unconstitutional statements during the guilt or sentencing phase of the trial." Other reasons included jury discrimination, presenting false evidence (79 cases), jury discrimination (63), improper evidence (51), improper questioning (42), and violation of right to counsel (32).
Death Penalty Info Center
The study counts each person as one case, even if they had multiple trials in which prosecutorial conduct was an issue. For instance, Curtis Flowers counts as one single case even though he had six trials and four death penalty convictions overturned due to prosecutorial misconduct.
It also does not include cases in which the prosecutor simply made a mistake or overlooked something they didn't realize was important at the time, nor does it include cases of exonerations due to prosecutorial misconduct that did not involve a death sentence. What we are talking about here is deliberate misconduct that prosecutors engaged in for the purposes of getting someone executed .
For example, in the case of Joe D'Ambrosio, who was exonerated in 2012 after spending 23 years on Death Row, prosecutors "admitted to withholding multiple pieces of evidence including physical evidence that could be tested, a motive for a prosecution witness to have committed the murder, and witness statements about the date of the murder and who committed it."
In another horrific example cited by the Death Penalty Information Center:
Robert DuBoise ’s case provides a notable example of the use of improper evidence. DuBoise was exonerated in 2020 after being in prison for 37 years for a Florida murder and rape conviction that was based on junk-science bite-mark evidence, and false jailhouse witness testimony. The forensic odontologist who testified at trial, Dr. Souviron, had previously said, “If you tell me that is the guy that did it, I will go into court and say that is the guy that did it,” at the International Association of Chiefs of Police. The “bite mark” that led to DuBoise’s conviction was not even a bite mark at all. Further, the police allegedly conspired with the jailhouse informant to produce false testimony at trial.
We have a system that rewards prosecutors and police officers for getting convictions and getting them as efficiently as possible regardless of whether or not they are actually right, and which does pretty much nothing when it turns out that they deliberately broke the rules in order to secure a conviction for an innocent person. That's a pretty big problem when it comes to ensuring that we do not execute or imprison innocent people.
Pretending our system isn't flawed isn't helping anyone. We do have a flawed system, and rather than working on ways to make it less flawed and less horrible and doing all we can to make sure that those who are innocent are released, we just try to pretend it isn't and screw people over in the process. We do things like deny Death Row prisoners the ability to have crime scene DNA tested because it would be a bad look for America if it turned out to belong to someone else, or only release innocent prisoners on the condition that they sign Alford pleas saying that they are innocent but admit the prosecution had enough evidence to rightfully convict them, or make those who are innocent say they are guilty at parole hearings and then, if they're not released, use that against them should they try for another trial in the future. It's not good, and it's also not fooling anyone who can take a couple hours out of their day to watch one of the 85,000 documentaries about wrongfully convicted people.
We need a system where this doesn't happen, where prosecutors and police are actually held accountable for doing anything unethical to deliberately secure the conviction of an innocent person and where we, at the very least, admit that we are simply not good enough at this to sentence anyone to something as permanent as death.
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