We know the State did not turn over evidence that was helpful to the defense in around 59% of proven Louisiana wrongful convictions.
This is a leading cause of unjust and inaccurate convictions. While sometimes this is intentional, it is often merely the inevitable negligence of an over-burdened prosecutor.
American prosecutors have immense power and responsibility. They are charged with prosecuting a criminal case but also with ensuring that the defendant’s constitutional rights are respected, including—critically —that any exculpatory evidence (suggesting the person on trial did not do the crime) is disclosed to the defense.
As the criminal justice system has grown over the last forty years, so has the amount of cases that any individual prosecutor needs to handle. And so has the inexperience of many prosecutors charged with handling serious felony cases.
Meanwhile there is very little professional accountability in the legal profession in criminal cases. This is especially so when courts uncover error or misconduct that lead to injustice. Of the 29 Louisiana exonerations since 1990 in which we know the State withheld exculpatory evidence from the defense, only one prosecutor has ever been disciplined. Many other states have seen a similar lack of accountability.
An overburdened justice system and flimsy professional accountability is a recipe for error. On the one hand, the volume of cases means prosecutors must act efficiently and sometimes cut corners. On the other, there are no meaningful professional sanctions looming if a person’s rights are violated.
IPNO believes in prosecuting far fewer people for minor offenses so that prosecutors’ offices can focus on the important work of accurate, just and humane prosecution for violent crime.
IPNO believes in rigorously-enforced practice standards for prosecution and defense. Inexperienced lawyers (prosecutors or defense) should not be responsible for serious felony trials.
IPNO advocates for robust, frequent, mandatory training on disclosure for prosecutors in all prosecution offices.
And as deterrent, IPNO advocates for mandatory professional discipline when courts find a disclosure violation at any stage in a criminal case.
To these ends, from 2010-2012, IPNO undertook a comprehensive study of attorney discipline in wrongful conviction cases in Louisiana over a ten year period and found that there had been virtually none. IPNO formed a working group with representatives of all sides of the criminal bar, the bench and the disciplinary authorities. Together we staged a two-day training for practicing criminal attorneys (prosecution and defense) in the New Orleans area to raise awareness of the importance of ethical compliance in practices to prevent wrongful convictions.