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The Devastating Consequences of Prosecutorial Misconduct

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Last year, Tim Masters was exonerated of a 1987 Fort Collins, Colo. murder following post-conviction DNA tests that pointed to his innocence. Masters had already spent nearly a decade in prison when he was finally released. A lawsuit recently filed by Masters claims law enforcement and prosecutors involved in his case withheld key pieces of evidence indicating his innocence – leading to his wrongful conviction and imprisonment.

As the Associated Press reported last week, the lead detective in Masters’ case acknowledged that police knew about physical evidence that could exonerate him including evidence that fingerprints found on the victim’s purse, hair, and clothing did not belong to Masters. Two prosecuting attorneys in Masters’ case also admitted they failed to turn over several key pieces of information to the defense that cast doubt on the prosecution’s case.

No physical evidence was ever found that linked Masters to the crime work directly with law enforcement, and are the first to know what evidence could convict a defendant, or exonerate him.They have a constitutional obligation to disclose all exculpatory evidence, or evidence that tends to negate guilt, to the defense. This duty epitomizes the prosecutor’s unique role as an “administer of justice” – a person responsible not only for convicting the guilty, but protecting the innocent and guarding the rights of the accused.

Far too often, however, prosecutors fail to disclose material evidence to the defense. In fact, suppression of exculpatory evidence is the most pervasive and common type of prosecutorial error. Masters’ case reveals the devastating consequences of this kind of misconduct. Tim Masters was only fifteen years old at the time of the murder, and was not convicted until 12 years after the crime. He languished in prison for almost ten years, and spent half his life trying to prove his innocence. Now, the state of Colorado is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees for public officials being sued in Masters pending lawsuit. Perhaps most tragically, the perpetrator of the brutal 1987 murder for which Masters was wrongfully convicted was never found and brought to justice.

Thus far, the extent to which the prosecutors in Masters’ case have been disciplined is minimal. Last year, both prosecutors were investigated and publically censured by the Colorado Supreme Court for their misconduct, yet both currently enjoy careers as local judges. Unfortunately, prosecutors are rarely disciplined by state and local bar associations for subverting justice, and when they are, the sanction is often nothing more than a public censure.

This year, the Justice Project will release Prosecutorial Accountability: A Policy Review, which will detail comprehensive recommendations for an effective system of prosecutorial accountability. The Justice Project’s recommendations will encourage states to adopt open-file discovery laws to prevent discovery violations like those in Masters’ case. Furthermore, The Justice Project recommends that states establish prosecutor review boards with the power to investigate and sanction prosecutors who violate their constitutional obligations. Prosecutors are without a doubt the most powerful actors in the criminal justice system. Abuse of that power only facilitates wrongful convictions, undermines justice, and jeopardizes public safety.

Unless states establish more thorough systems of prosecutorial accountability, miscarriages of justice will continue. Prosecutors should receive more than just a slap on the wrist for deliberate errors that cost innocent men and women their freedom.

John F. Terzano is President of The Justice Project, a nonpartisan organization that works to increase fairness and accuracy in the criminal justice system.

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