A federal appeals court in New York is sitting on a decision that could make prosecutors all but immune from the most serious allegations of wrongdoing or misconduct.
An article published in The New York Times outlines the present difficulty in holding prosecutors accountable for their own mistakes – including those which result in wrongful convictions.
According to the reporter, Alan Feuer, the courts could make an already-difficult process next to impossible.
Feuer gives the example of police officers. Under the precedents set by the U.S. Supreme Court, filing a complaint or litigating against an individual officer is still a relatively easy and straightforward process, if not one which is always bound to succeed.
However, prosecutors are given much more leeway. A person wrongfully convicted cannot hold a district attorney legally responsible for their incarceration or sentence served, given the total immunity generally afforded to prosecutors.
The same holds true even for states – in New York, for instance, a wrongfully imprisoned person cannot sue the state unless they can prove conclusively and beyond any doubt that they are innocent, rather than the victim of a botched trial.
In spring, a federal judge in Brooklyn wrote off a wrongful conviction case by citing a 2009 Supreme Court ruling. The judge said that issues related to the “supervision and training” of assistant district attorneys are not administrative matters, but rather prosecutorial ones – meaning that the city couldn’t be held accountable for the failings or misdeeds of an assistant DA.
Last week, a coalition of defense attorneys filed an appellate brief, saying the ruling could prevent those who have been wronged by prosecutors from obtaining any semblance of legal redress.
They say that the ruling – made by Judge Ann M. Donnelly, herself a former prosecutor – “threatens to eliminate (or, at the very least, substantially limit) municipal lability for prosecutorial misconduct.”
Should neither the state nor prosecutors be held responsible for mistakes or deficiencies on the part of a prosecutor, the means for a wronged individual to seek compensation – financial or otherwise – would be so severely limited as to be next to nonexistent.
“Municipal liability provides a much-needed incentive for municipalities to hold their policy makers accountable,” read a critical brief submitted by The Innocence Project. “That accountability can push DAs to adopt policies and practices that promote fair trials and implement training and disciplinary policies that reduce the likelihood of repeat mistakes and misconduct resulting in wrongful convictions.”