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Records Show Ohio Prosecutors Repeatedly Defying Legal Standards

Ernie Haynes never imagined that taking care of his three grandsons after his daughter's drug overdose death would turn him into a felon at the hands of a longtime Ohio prosecutor known to sidestep the rules intended to protect a defendant's rights in criminal trials. Thomas Matuszak, had a track record of repeatedly violating legal standards to sway juries at trials and win convictions, according to court findings. Matuszak is one of about 100 prosecutors across Ohio who the courts found had violated standards meant to preserve a defendant's civil rights in criminal trials, an investigation by Columbia Journalism Investigations, NPR and member station WVXU in Cincinnati, and The Ohio Newsroom found. He is one of 13 who did so more than once, NPR reports. Together, these 13 prosecutors accounted for nearly one-third of the 104 cases in the state where courts found that prosecutors acted improperly. "Disciplinary authorities need to change and recognize that these are serious violations," Ellen Yaroshefsky, a legal ethics professor at Hofstra University's School of Law in New York said.

Of the scores of criminal trials from 2018 to 2021 in which appeals courts found that prosecutors acted improperly, most were for failing to disclose evidence and making inappropriate comments in closing arguments, violations that could have affected the defendant's ability to get a fair trial. Nearly 80% of the errors were ruled not egregious enough to warrant a reversal, which experts say enables prosecutors to make repeated mistakes with near impunity. None of the prosecutors involved in repeated improper-conduct cases was sanctioned by the Ohio Supreme Court, the body ultimately charged with doling out attorney discipline. All of the prosecutors found to have repeatedly acted improperly have continued to practice as attorneys, with some moving into more powerful positions, including two who became judges tasked with ensuring fair trials. In Ohio, there were roughly 4,700 criminal trials statewide between 2018 and 2021. Nearly 450 appeals, about 10% of those trials, included an allegation of prosecutorial misconduct during those four years, CJI and NPR's analysis shows. Appeals involving prosecutorial misconduct are rare, but in Ohio about 1 in 4 claims ended in a ruling of improper conduct in that time, a ratio that suggests a systemic problem, experts said.


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