In an October 2009 article in the Woodland Daily Democrat, again he “cited a 90 percent conviction rate” during a fundraising event. Again in March, he emphasized, “the highest conviction rate in more than a decade.”
They cite Kern County, “the office ‘has had the highest per capita prison commitment rate of any major California County.’ What the office fails to highlight is the startling twenty five wrongful convictions that the office has accrued during Jagel’s tenure as District Attorney.”
Sound familiar? According to the Justice Project, “The troubling culture apparent in the Kern County office is not the exception. Due in large part to the public pressure to convict and the widespread failure of state bars and disciplinary agencies to hold prosecutors accountable for ethical violations, this culture of ‘convict at all costs’ is a nationwide problem.”
“With the unique role as both advocates and ministers of justice, prosecutors are the most powerful actors in our justice system,” they continue. “Prosecutors have sole responsibility for decisions regarding what charges to bring against an individual, what sentence to seek, what plea bargain to offer, and what evidence to present to a jury during trial. Yet despite their power, they are rarely held accountable for violating their ethical obligations. This lack of accountability promotes the problematic culture that plagues prosecutors’ offices and contributes to wrongful convictions.”
Why focus on prosecutorial accountability? Certainly our exhaustive reporting over the past eight months and prior shows that all levels of the Yolo County Judicial System need an overhaul. However, the most powerful element in the criminal justice system is not the judges or the jury, but rather the prosecutor.
“Prosecutors are arguably the most powerful figures in the American criminal justice system. Prosecutors decide which charges to bring, what plea bargain to offer, and what sentence to request. Their decisions have far-reaching consequences on defendants, victims, their respective families, and the general public. Given the special duties of prosecutors, and the broad power they exercise in the criminal justice system, it is critical that prosecutors discharge their duties responsibly and ethically,” writes the Justice Project.
They go on to cite recent studies that show that prosecutorial misconduct is a “systemic reality within the criminal justice system.” They cite research to this effect. “In 2003, a study conducted by the Center for Public Integrity found that prosecutorial misconduct was a factor in dismissed charges, reversed convictions, or reduced sentences in at least, 2,012 cases since 1970. In 28 of those cases, involving 32 separate defendants, prosecutorial misconduct led to the wrongful conviction of innocent individuals. In 1999, a national study conducted by the Chicago Tribune found that between 1963 and 1999, the courts dismissed homicide convictions in 381 cases because prosecutors suppressed exculpatory evidence or presented false testimony,” they write.
They also make recommendations to ensure prosecutorial accountability.
The Justice Project’s Recommendations to Ensure Prosecutorial Accountability
- States should require that prosecutors’ offices adopt and enforce clearly-defined official policies and procedures.
- States should require open-file discovery in criminal cases.
- States should require that prosecutors document all agreements with witnesses and jailhouse informants concerning conferment of benefits of any kind.
- States should require trial and appellate judges to report all cases of prosecutorial misconduct, including cases where the misconduct is ruled to be harmless error.
- States should establish a prosecutor review board with the power to investigate allegations of misconduct and impose sanctions.
- States should require that prosecutors participate in training and continuing education programs.
Clearly there is no simple solution here, but if we take this issue seriously, we ought to consider implementing these issues.
The problem, as a blog, Gamso – For the Defense, who claims to be an Ohio criminal defense lawyer writes, is that prosecutors really do not care if the wrong person is convicted.
He argues, why would a prosecutor not want to make sure that the guilty have been punished rather than the innocent? He cites seven cases including “one where the convicted person was dead, three where the people were no longer in prison but hoped to clear their names, one of a man on death row, and two of other current prisoners.” In this case, letters were sent by the Governor and the Attorney Attorney to seven prosecutors in Ohio “urging each of them to permit DNA testing in a particular case where they’d opposed it.”
“I really think it’s irrational not to take advantage of methods that could establish either guilt or innocence when those technologies are available to us,” Ohio Governor Ted Strickland told The Columbus Dispatch. “I can think of no good argument why anyone would be denied DNA testing if, in fact, there is a reasonable or relevant opportunity to bring clarity to whether or not someone is guilty of a crime.”
However, a few days ago, the Columbus Dispatch reported, “Several prosecutors urged to permit DNA testing in specific criminal cases are firing back at Gov. Ted Strickland and Attorney General Richard Cordray, accusing them of “political grandstanding” and taking sides against victims.”
The report continued, “Four of seven prosecutors in the cases under scrutiny, as well as the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, sent critical letters in response to Strickland and Cordray’s requests this week.”
“Thus far, none has agreed to what was acknowledged as a voluntary request for DNA testing. John Murphy, head of the prosecutors’ association, said he was ‘deeply dismayed and surprised’ that prosecutors were not consulted in advance,'” the Dispatch reported. “‘The action you have taken unfortunately gives the impression that you have taken sides, and you have done so with only the convicted criminals’ side of the arguments,’ he told Strickland and Cordray.”
Again, it would seem that prosecutors would want to punish the guilty and exonerate the innocent in the name of justice. They, after all, purportedly represent the people. And what do the people gain from having innocent people, or potentially innocent people (since we do not even know if they are or are not), in prison? And yet, here we go again.
As we will see likely on Tuesday, sometimes it is not even about putting the guilty people in prison, sometimes it is simply about getting more money for the DA’s office to play with. But more on that on Tuesday if the story is ready for publication by then.
In the meantime, given the immense power of prosecutors and the apparent political incentive to get prosecutions at all costs, perhaps we ought to have more serious oversight over the system.
—David M. Greenwald reporting