Last week, the San Jose Mercury News reported that Jeffrey Rodriguez, a man from San Jose who spent five years in prison for a crime he did not commit, was awarded a $1 million settlement from Santa Clara County for his wrongful conviction. Jeffrey's wrongful conviction and his subsequent settlement is not a unique story in Santa Clara: since 2005 the county has paid more than $4.6 million in settlements for wrongful convictions by the District Attorney's office. Nor is Jeffrey's story unique to the state of California. Earlier this month a Louisiana circuit court of appeals upheld a $14 million jury settlement against the Orleans Parish DA for misconduct resulting in the wrongful conviction and death sentence of John Thompson.
Like clockwork, wrongful convictions continue to occur at the hands of a system that is prone to error. In addition to the unconscionable act of incarcerating a person for years for a crime they did not commit, wrongful convictions impose an enormous financial burden on taxpayers. Year after year, month after month, the criminal justice system must pay for its mistakes.
In this economic climate, can states really afford to have a criminal justice system prone to dangerous, costly errors? The answer is no. Especially when the source of these errors -- which are accounted for in The Justice Project's policy reviews -- are well known and well-documented, and when there are cost-effective, common sense solutions to the causes of wrongful convictions.
But states can take action right now to prevent the injustices mentioned above. For example, one of the leading and most troubling causes of wrongful convictions, and the source of all the faulty verdicts mentioned above, is prosecutorial misconduct and suppression of evidence. As detailed in The Justice Project's policy review, Improving Prosecutorial Accountability, prosecutors are rarely held accountable by the state bar or state disciplinary authorities for intentional or unintentional errors that cost innocent men and women their freedom. One cost-effective measure states can take to prevent future wrongful convictions is to launch investigations and issue sanctions where appropriate against prosecutors who, by withholding important evidence from the defense, are responsible for hindering fair and accurate verdicts.
When the causes of wrongful convictions are well-known and well-documented, a failure to utilize this critical information and enact reforms will only lead to more inaccurate verdicts in our courtrooms. Without action, we will continue to hear stories of innocent people languishing in prison, and, just as they've had to do in New Orleans, Louisiana and Santa Clara, California, taxpayers will continue to shoulder the financial burden of the criminal justice system's costly errors.
John F. Terzano is President of The Justice Project, a nonpartisan organization that works to increase fairness and accuracy in the criminal justice system.