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Law School Forum Looks at Human Impacts of Prosecutorial Misconduct

11/14/2022

Two men who were imprisoned after what they described as wrongful convictions stemming from prosecutorial misconduct spoke at a Brooklyn Law School virtual panel, Prosecutorial Misconduct: The Unchecked Abuse, which examined the problem and potential solutions.

The event brought the Law School community’s attention to an issue that is more prevalent than most people realize. A recent National Registry of Exonerations study of 2,400 exonerations found that almost a third included prosecutorial misconduct, according to Bianca Li ’24 and Stephanie Pettit ’24, student moderators at the Oct. 18 event. A 2020 report from the same group revealed that prosecutors who were found to have commit.

Professor Cynthia Godsoe, the third panelist, described efforts she and other law school professors have made to address prosecutorial misconduct through Accountability NY, which filed ethics complaints 18 months ago concerning dozens of New York City prosecutors whom appellate courts had found to have committed misconduct. As far as the group knows, no action has been taken against any of the prosecutors, Godsoe said.

Panelists Roger Clark and Derrick Hamilton described the painful impacts of being wrongfully convicted and imprisoned because of prosecutorial misconduct, including not being able to be with family or advance their educations. Both now work as grassroots advocates to help others avoid the same fate.

Clark said that at age 20, he was coerced into taking a plea bargain in a shooting case. Even though he did not shoot the victim, the prosecutor and his own defense attorney convinced Clark that he would face eight to 25 years in prison if he didn’t submit a plea, Clark said. Unbeknownst to him until later, the victim was not cooperating with the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office, and if the case had gone to trial, the lack of evidence would have cleared him of the charges, he said.

“I was coerced, I was pressured to take that plea, and to this day that decision has ruined my life,” Clark said. “If anyone has the power to send you to jail for the rest of your life, there should be more oversight [of them], not less. There are too many individuals in jail based on wrongful convictions, people who did not actually commit a crime…. The Innocence Project has shown that [even innocent] people often take pleas for minor crimes and major crimes.”

Now a community leader with VOCAL-NY, Clark is still fighting to clear his name and help others by lobbying for state laws that would help people challenge their convictions. One such piece of legislation is the Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act, which would amend New York State law to allow innocent people who pleaded guilty to challenge their convictions in court, and enable a viable legal pathway to exoneration. 

Clark pointed out that under New York State law, the only path for exoneration is a successful Criminal Procedure Law 440 motion, which allows a defendant to ask the court to vacate a judgment against him or her or to re-open the case. But people do not have the right to an attorney to help them file it, and few people can afford one. Of the three states that do not give people the right to representation in such cases, New York is one.

Derrick Hamilton, co-founder of Families and Friends of the Wrongfully Convicted, was exonerated after 23 years of litigating his innocence on his own, without the benefit of a post-conviction attorney. He now helps others in prison overturn their convictions and keeps the pressure on prosecutors to be transparent and seek justice, rather than trying to win at all costs.

“We file complaints against rogue prosecutors, we ring the alarm, and we litigate,” Hamilton said. “My biggest asset is my voice, and my ability to mobilize people. That’s what I’ve been doing for the past 11 years since I’ve been released. More than anything else, we tell people to go out and vote.”

Both men said systemic racism has led to more people of color being wrongfully imprisoned. They emphasized that the district attorney is one of the most powerful elected officials in each county, and that citizens need to know and consider the records of anyone running for that office. Godsoe explained that prosecutorial misconduct has been driven in part by a common practice at district attorneys’ offices—tying high conviction rates to promotion. Tellingly, among the prosecutors against whom Accountability NY filed disciplinary actions for serious ethical violations were numerous supervisors.

“People get promoted based on conviction rates without looking into what that [implies],” Godsoe said. “They’re supposed to be delivering justice, not convictions, and certainly not wrongful convictions. We need to look at this as a society. It’s exactly as Derrick and Roger said. [Prosecutorial misconduct] just doesn’t get enough attention in terms of how life-ruining it can be.”

Prosecutorial misconduct can take many forms, according to Godsoe. “We’re talking about basic constitutional rules,” she said. “Making arguments that are racially biased, striking jurors for racist reasons, putting on witnesses that you know are going to lie.”

Changing the system to ensure that prosecutors don’t abuse their power will require more oversight of prosecutors themselves, both in their offices, from leadership concerned about preventing misconduct, and externally, from advocacy and other groups.

“We need courageous people who know the importance of holding prosecutors accountable,” Hamilton said. “We need fair people, people with integrity.”

Watch the video of the discussion.