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Last week, after spending 28 years in prison for a murder he did not commit William Dillon was finally freed.  DNA testing conducted by the Florida Innocence Project convinced prosecutors in Brevard County, Florida not to re-try Dillon for the 1981 murder. A story in the Florida Today newspaper recounted the numerous acts of prosecutorial misconduct in Dillon’s case that led to this miscarriage of justice.    

Dillon was convicted based on the testimony of a handful of unreliable witnesses, including a discredited expert, whose testimony was used to convict two other men in Florida – Wilton Dedge and Juan Ramos.  Both of their convictions were later overturned.  Another questionable tactic that led to Dillon’s wrongful conviction included the use of a witness who slept with an investigator for the State.  She later recanted her story but the damage had already been done.  

This is not the first time prosecutorial misconduct played a role in a wrongful conviction.  Dillon’s case only represents one of what may have become a common occurrence in the Florida State Attorney’s office.  

Evidence of pervasive prosecutorial misconduct in Florida is not inconsistent with other national studies on this issue.  In 2003, a study conducted by the Center for Public Integrity found that since 1970, at least 2,012 convictions, indictments, or sentences have been reversed due to prosecutorial misconduct.  By analyzing the data provided by the Center for Public Integrity, The Justice Project found that in the state of Florida specifically, of the cases that were reviewed by the courts on claims of prosecutorial misconduct, over 44% of those cases were eventually overturned.  This rate of misconduct is much greater than any other state reviewed in the study.

Procedural reforms, such as those outlined in The Justice Project’s policy reviews on jailhouse snitch testimony, expanded discovery laws, and the practice and use of forensic science, can curb the ability of prosecutors to utilize unreliable witnesses, withhold important exculpatory evidence, or present faulty forensic evidence.  However, without prosecutorial accountability, prosecutorial misconduct can still lead to wrongful convictions.  Unfortunately, both national and local studies of prosecutorial misconduct reveal that prosecutors are rarely punished even for the most egregious abuses of power.  Within the criminal justice system, there is a dangerous and pervasive lack of prosecutorial accountability.  Nowhere is this lack of accountability more clear than in the state of Florida.  

As such, I join Florida Today and the Florida Innocence Project in their call for a special investigation into the Florida State Attorney’s office.  Abuse of prosecutorial power only facilitates wrongful convictions, subverts justice, and jeopardizes public safety.  Investigating the prosecutors who might be responsible for the miscarriages of justice in Florida would be a critical first step in preventing acts of misconduct in the future.  

In 2009, the Justice Project will release Prosecutorial Accountability: A Policy Review, which will detail comprehensive recommendations for an effective system of prosecutorial accountability.  Only when the most powerful actors in the criminal justice system are held accountable for their actions, and sanctioned for their misconduct, can states be confident in the fairness and reliability of criminal trials.

John F. Terzano is President of The Justice Project, a nonpartisan organization that works to increase fairness and accuracy in the criminal justice system.

Originally posted to John Terzano The Justice Project on Mon Dec 15, 2008 at 10:45 AM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Crimes in the pursuit of justice? (7+ / 0-)

    Crimes in the pursuit of justice seem to be taken much less seriously than just about any other type of crime.  No doubt this is because the perpetrators of prosecutorial misconduct control the mechanism of justice -  why would they use the system against themselves?

    We need mandatory minimums for cops, prosecutors, and judges who break the law.  Why does breaking the Constitution, allegedly the highest law of the land, carry no penalties?  Because the Constitution only constrains those who make and enforce the laws.  Why enact any penalties or carry out aggressive prosecution for violations of such a "trivial" law???

    It does not require a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set brush fires in people's minds - Samuel Adams

    by Red no more on Mon Dec 15, 2008 at 10:54:27 AM PST

  •  It seems to be an original flaw. The framers (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Russ Jarmusch, watershed

    of the Constitution didn't envision crooks getting into positions of influence and power.

    The hereditary ruler was rejected because experience had shown that no one person could be an effective ruler and that there was no way to hold the courtiers and ministers accountable.

    I think it was hoped that having to stand for periodic elections would make the chief executive more accountable.  Of course, that remedy has now been vitiated by the term-limited automatic removal.  A rotating elected chief executive is no more accountable than an hereditary one.

    That wasn't the intent of the 22 Amendment, but that's the consequence.

    How do you tell a predator from a protector? The predator will eat you sooner rather than later.

    by hannah on Mon Dec 15, 2008 at 11:21:46 AM PST

    •  No: Impeachment (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      hannah, Russ Jarmusch

      No, the creators and signers of the Constitution clearly anticipated criminals getting power, for which they adopted the remedy of impeachment.

      What they didn't allocate a remedy for was laziness. Lazy populace that doesn't demand justice, or accurate press. Lazy media that doesn't accurately cover the story. Lazy opposition in candidates for office (judges are elected), in opposing parties, in competing branches.

      In a democracy, the people get the government they deserve.

      Florida is a democracy. And it's not much worse than the rest of this lazy, corrupt country.

      "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro." - HST

      by DocGonzo on Mon Dec 15, 2008 at 11:35:39 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Thanks for this important diary. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Russ Jarmusch, watershed

    I'm glad we have people like you looking out for the Constitution and the rights of the accused here in my home State of Florida.

  •  Florida is out of control. This case is (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    emblematic of what is/isn't happing in the State's justice system. This along with Gov. Crist & Attorney Gen. Bill McCullum appealing the recent case in Miami that overturned adoption rights for Gays (the only State with such Anita Bryant type laws)is an indication that we have a lot of work to do in Florida.

    •  Playing devil's advocate here (0+ / 0-)

      My understanding is that if the State didn't appeal the ruling, it would only be binding in the trial court's jurisdiction, not statewide.

      There is nothing so practical as a good theory—Kurt Lewin

      by ebohlman on Mon Dec 15, 2008 at 04:12:02 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  The problem is with the judges. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Russ Jarmusch

    These kinds of cases would never occur if trial judges at both the state and federal level would try cases honestly. Instead, what we see is that most judges are former prosecutors and have a prosecutor's mindset when it comes to evidence and witnesses. They routinely ignore defense motions designed to challenge the credibility of witnesses and evidence and ignore obvious "testilying" by police officers and federal agents.

    I once consulted on a federal drug case where the case agent testified repeatedly that he had continuously observed a suspect for over 13 hours in a Cessna 182 airplane. Problem is, almost all small planes, including all Cessna 182s, have  a fuel tank capacity of only four hours, so the agent was obviously lying in order to convict this one defendant. Once confronted and forced to admit he was lying, the entire case was tainted because he had destroyed his own credibility. Everyone knew he was lying, including the judge who allowed the testimony and refused to admonish either the prosecution, who solicited the testimony, or the agent.

    When judges encourage the prosecution to use false testimony by not calling them on it, there can be no justice.

    -6.38/-3.79::'A man is incapable of comprehending any argument that interferes with his revenues.' Descartes

    by skrymir on Mon Dec 15, 2008 at 11:51:46 AM PST

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