EXONERATIONS: Part X – Discipline of Law Enforcement for Misconduct Nearly Nonexistent

(This is the 10th of an 11-part series by The Vanguard reporting on a study of exonerations produced by Samuel R. Gross, Maurice J. Possley, Kaitlyn J. Roll, and Klara H. Stephens)

By Kelsea Valerio

Research by Samuel R. Gross, Maurice J. Possley, Kaitlyn J. Roll, and Klara H. Stephens, showed that out of the 1,295 cases in which officials were found to have engaged in misconduct that lead to a wrongful conviction of an innocent individual, only 17 percent faced some form of discipline.

It was often found that when discipline for misconduct occurred, it was not in relation to any one case, but resulted after a pattern of misconduct was revealed to have spanned over the course of several cases, sometimes ranging over years.

This was found to be true for 70 percent of exoneration cases where discipline for misconduct was in place.

For instance, Chicago Police Commander John Burge was fired following several instances of misconduct and was convicted of perjury in 2011 in relation to his role as the leading officer in a group who tortured suspects.

Prosecutors were the least likely to face discipline for misconduct – it only accounted for four percent of exonerations where misconduct by an official was found.

Police officers were almost five times as likely as prosecutors to face disciplinary action, accounting for 19 percent; Forensic analysts were the most likely at 47 percent.

The rate of discipline, said researchers, was found to be the highest in exonerations related to drug crimes at 74 percent. This was far greater than the 17 percent related to sexual assault. Murder and robbery both stood at nine percent each. And lastly, the rate of discipline for white collar crime and child sex abuse exonerations was at three percent each.

Gross et. al. categorizes discipline for misconduct in exonerations into three distinct categories: employment, professional, and the harshest, criminal.

Disciplinary action related to employment refers to when the agency that employs the individuals demands resignation.  Professional discipline involves the revocation of a license or certification.

Finally, disciplinary action at the criminal level is when criminal charges are brought against the individual with the possibility of conviction.

While prosecutors were the least likely to face discipline, they were also the most likely to receive the most lenient form of punishment. In the cases where prosecutors were disciplined by their employers, two were fired, four resigned and five were demoted.  Fourteen faced professional  discipline as lawyers (three of which were disbarred), two were suspended, four were reprimanded and three were officially sanctioned by judges on the specific case they were involved in.

Only two prosecutors in the National Registry of Exonerations faced criminal charges. Former Texas DA Ken Anderson served four days in jail in 2013 for concealing evidence that would have vindicated Micheal Morton, who was wrongfully incarcerated for 24 years for murder.

A former North Carolina DA spent one day in jail in 2007 after concealing exculpatory evidence in multiple cases came to light. In the wake of the shameful actions of these two prosecutors,  their license to practice law was revoked and they were discharged from their official positions.

The number of police officers who faced discipline for misconduct is far smaller than the number of exonerations involved, said the research report.

For instance, Cook County Sergeant Watts and Officer Kallatt Mohammed faced federal convictions for intentionally planting drugs on innocent defendants who were later exonerated. As referenced before, Chicago Police Commander John Burge was also found guilty of perjury related to perjury regarding participation in multiple torture cases.

The conviction of these three law enforcement officers accounted for two thirds of all the cases of exonerations nationally. After these officers were found to have patterns of misconduct, their involvement in past cases was scrutinized and subsequent exonerations followed.

Gross et. al. also explained that many cases where an officer faced professional discipline are not public knowledge and thus, the data is incomplete.

In all cases where forensic analysts committed forensic fraud that led to an exoneration, the analyst faced some sort of discipline. Examples of such fraud included false drug analyst reports and lying about their credentials.

For all known cases where analysts were involved in misconduct, the rate of discipline was 47 percent.

Misconduct by prosecutors, police officers and forensic analysts stands out as an egregious crime, especially when coming from figures of authority. While instances of misconduct in these cases are difficult to detect, it is also very unlikely that discipline for such misconduct is imposed, if ever.

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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