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Will NY Prosecutors Who Convicted The Innocent Be Held Accountable?

A group of law professors published new complaints against 17 New York prosecutors, highlighting behavior that sent innocent people to prison, the latest salvo in a push for accountability that was given new life by a federal court.

One Brooklyn prosecutor was found to have withheld key evidence in a trial, sending an innocent man to prison for more than 24 years. Another declined to tell a jury of lenient plea deals that a key witness received in exchange for testifying, sending two men to prison for nearly 17 years. A third allowed a witness to lie; the defendant in that case spent almost six years in prison, the New York Times reports.

A number of the grievances filed by the law professors concern cases from the early 1990s when crime was high and there was political pressure to win convictions. The professors aim to bring public attention to prosecutorial misconduct and promote the state disciplinary process.

In each complaint, either a judge or a district attorney’s office had previously recognized the wrongdoing. There were no public records of discipline for any of the prosecutors, many of whom are still working in the city’s justice system. One has taught a course on legal ethics.

“It’s relatively easy to land on your feet and go somewhere else,” said Daniel Medwed, one of the group of six law professors, who in addition to posting the complaints online, submitted the grievances to the state committees responsible for disciplining lawyers.

The grievances, which are reviewed by committees made up of both lawyers and non-lawyers, can lead to public admonition, suspension and even disbarment. Experts say that rarely happens, and complaints often remain private.

“Most prosecutors don’t get sanctioned and most lawyers don’t get sanctioned,” said Bruce Green, who directs a center for legal ethics at Fordham University.

It was not initially clear that the professors could post their complaints publicly. After filing a round of grievances, they were warned by the city’s top lawyer, James Johnson, that publicizing the files was a breach of the state law that keeps attorney’s disciplinary records confidential.

The law professors, working with Civil Rights Corps, a nonprofit advocating criminal justice reform, filed suit against Johnson’s successor, Georgia Pestana, as well as the Queens district attorney and several grievance committee officials.

Last month, federal judge Victor Marrero ruled in their favor, saying that the First Amendment prohibited the state from blocking the professors’ actions.

The law professors say that the current climate makes it all the more important to illuminate prosecutorial wrongdoing. Medwed, who teaches at Northeastern University, cited San Francisco district attorney Boudin’s recall and the opposition faced by Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascon, also facing a recall effort. Medwed said “more conservative crime control elements are afoot,” that could result in renewed pressure on prosecutors to win convictions.


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