As advocates of justice, prosecutors play a unique and powerful role in our justice system. Yet too often, prosecutors fall prey to a pervasive "convict at all costs" culture, and neglect their ethical duty to protect the innocent and guard the rights of the accused. The recent actions of Santa Clara District Attorney Dolores Carr demonstrate this troubling culture. Carr has directed her office to boycott the courtroom of Superior Court Judge Andrea Bryan, who barred the retrial of a case overturned due to Santa Clara prosecutor Troy Benson’s prosecutorial misconduct. The finding of misconduct against Troy Benson presents an opportunity for Santa Clara prosecutors to examine what may have led to Benson’s misconduct, and take steps to ensure abuses of power do not take place again in the future. However, instead of addressing her colleague’s misconduct, which Judge Bryan called "grossly shocking," Carr is calling for open criticism of the judge responsible for upholding her constitutional obligation to reverse convictions prejudiced by egregious prosecutorial misconduct.
Prosecutors have sole responsibility for deciding whether to file charges, what charges to bring, what sentence to seek, what plea bargain to offer, and what evidence to present to a jury during trial. These varied and unique duties render prosecutors the most powerful actors in our criminal justice system. Yet despite their power, prosecutors are rarely held accountable for violating their ethical obligations. This lack of accountability fosters a problematic culture that plagues prosecutors’ offices around the country and contributes to wrongful convictions.
Prosecutors’ obligation to ensure public safety and convict the guilty must coexist with the overriding goal of justice. The Justice Project’s policy review, Improving Prosecutorial Accountability outlines suggested reforms that can help create a culture that prioritizes fairness and accuracy over high conviction rates. For example, prosecutor’s offices should establish training programs and official office policies on the prosecutor’s duty to disclose evidence to the defense and the proper use of prosecutorial discretion – a move that The Department of Justice recently took in response to the Ted Stevens case. Moreover, prosecutors who intentionally abuse their power to secure a wrongful conviction must be investigated and disciplined for their actions. Jurisdictions should also establish prosecutorial review boards with the power to investigate and sanction prosecutors who perpetrate acts of misconduct as a means of recognizing the unique power prosecutors hold. Implementing these reforms will foster a more ethical culture in prosecutors’ offices and increase transparency in prosecutorial decision-making.
John F. Terzano is President of The Justice Project, a nonpartisan organization that works to increase fairness and accuracy in the criminal justice system.
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