Prosecutors Gone Wild: The Dangers of Prosecutorial Misconduct

Though TV shows depict prosecutors as the link in the criminal justice system that is responsible for restraining the others, always talking sense to overzealous cops, what happens in real life when the prosecutors are the ones that need to be controlled? Prosecutorial misconduct is a big problem in Texas and one that’s incredibly hard to address as there are no easy ways to check the power of rogue prosecutors.

A new study by the Innocence Project has found that in at least 91 Texas criminal cases between 2004 and 2008, prosecutors engaged in misconduct. A prime (and horrifying) example of such bad behavior is hiding evidence that would have proved someone’s innocence. Whose job is it to police the prosecutors? According to the research, no one. Not a single Texas prosecutor was held accountable for the misconduct found in the survey.

The new data was no shock to University of Houston Law Center professor Robert Schuwerk, who has engaged in similar research in the past. “Essentially there is no discipline,” Schuwerk said, for prosecutors who fail to abide by rules established to protect the rights of the innocent. “My impression is, relying on the ethics rules isn’t going to work.”

Schuwerk discussed a recent example of such troubling behavior, the case of Michael Morton. Morton was recently exonerated after spending 25 years in prison for his wife’s murder when DNA evidence proved that an intruder had been at the crime scene. The prosecutors in the Morton case decided his attorneys did not need to know that eyewitnesses saw a man casing the Morton residence before the murder, or that his wife’s credit card had been used in another city after her death. Prosecutors also declined to inform the defense that Morton’s 3-year-old son had said a “monster” killed his mother while his daddy was at work.

Morton went from a pleasant life in the suburbs to a nightmare in prison. His message is clear: unless we all wake up and demand change, Morton said, any of us could be the next victim of a criminal prosecution gone wrong.

Requiring prosecutors to share their files with defense attorneys is one way to make a difference. Jim Leitner, Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos’ first assistant, told the audience that a new policy wasn’t recently instituted requiring prosecutors to share the offense report summarizing the police investigation of a crime. These are small but important steps which hopefully will lead to bigger change.

State Senator Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who is on the board of the New York Innocence Project, said he believes training could do help improve the existing system, but made clear that “when prosecutorial misconduct is truly tantamount to criminal activity, it should be treated as such.”

That might still happen in the Morton case. Recently Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson ordered a Court of Inquiry to investigate the allegations of prosecutorial misconduct. The proceedings will hopefully send an important message to Texas prosecutors.

Mick Mickelsen is a nationally recognized criminal trial attorney with more than 30 years of experience defending people charged with white-collar crimes, drug offenses, sex crimes, murder, and other serious state and federal offenses.