THE BLOG

Why Do Prosecutors Fight to Maintain Wrongful Convictions?

06/24/2015 10:58 am ET | Updated Jun 23, 2016

When it comes to our criminal justice system, prosecutor and police misconduct remains the elephant in the courtroom. Sometimes it is spoken about, but rarely is any action taken. One recent exception to this pattern of inaction, however, can be seen in Orange County, California, where all 250 lawyers in the district attorney's office have been disqualified from participation in a capital murder case. After evidence surfaced that the District Attorney's office, in concert with the county sheriff's department, had systematically suppressed exculpatory evidence in at least forty cases, Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals removed every single prosecutor from the DA's office from the case.

The widespread misconduct involved a secret database of information about defendants being held in custody. This database was related to false testimony obtained by prison informants. The Sheriff's Office denied this database existed. This deception was further concealed by prosecutors while these cases went on for decades. Judge Goethals helped bring this to light, and recommended that the prosecutors be prosecuted.

People are paying attention to this unusual and shocking case. Even the ultra-conservative National Review is covering this story:

The database tracking inmates' movements around the jail and the reason for those movements is significant, because Orange County law enforcement and prosecutors were in the habit of placing targeted suspects in proximity to criminal informants, who were rewarded with reduced sentences, favors, or money -- payments in some instances ran into the six figures -- for helping put together cases against jailed suspects. This practice is illegal. It is one thing if a suspect in custody speaks about his crimes and an informant comes forward to report that confession; it is another thing to operate a program under which the interrogation of suspects is effectively delegated to incarcerated felons who are secretly on the county's payroll. The lack of present legal counsel is only the beginning of what is wrong with that practice.

To operate such a program is ipso facto a violation of the law and of ethical standards for jailers and prosecutors both. To lie about it is a serious crime. It may turn out to be a lucky thing after all that these defective prosecutions will probably open up a great many jail cells: Orange County is going to have to put these sheriff's officers and prosecutors somewhere.

This is as case of organized crime on the part of the same people who are supposed to enforce the law and guarantee our constitutional rights. And hard as it is to believe, these same procedures have long been in existence. This problem is bigger than you can ever imagine. I would like to personally commend Judge Thomas M. Goethals for two things: First, for having the courage to say "enough is enough" and take a stand for justice. Second, for letting these sheriffs and district attorneys know that they are not above the law. Judge Goethals gives innocent prisoners like myself some hope that one day the misconduct in our cases could be addressed.

Careers are made off of many wrongful convictions. Some of these same officers go on to be police commissioners. Some district attorneys go on to become judges in state and federal courts, and some become attorney generals. Innocent prisoners are the skeletons in their closets. If our stories were ever to get out, their careers--and those of many others--would come into question. It's sad, but egos also play an integral part. Most of the time, prosecutors are only concerned with winning cases to put more notches on their belts. Justice is rarely on their agendas.

In my case, the prosecution and police withheld evidence of my innocence for nineteen years. For example, their chief witness against me turned out to have initially been a suspect in the same murder I was later charged with. Among other kinds of misconduct, perjured testimony went uncorrected, witnesses received deals to testify falsely, and the lead detective bullied witnesses not to come forth and help show my innocence at trial.

Once most of this evidence came to light, Senior Deputy Attorney General William Stoycos, the current prosecutor on my case, agreed to do a "good-faith" investigation of my claims. But how could that be possible when he's still involved in maintaining my wrongful conviction?

Back in 2011, after 16-and-a-half years, my conviction was overturned by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, on the grounds of insufficient evidence, which is equivalent to a "not guilty" verdict. I was released from my natural-life sentence. This all took place before my defense had any knowledge that the prosecution knew I was innocent from day one. Prosecutor Stoycos went as far as filing a late appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Without the knowledge of the perjured testimony that convicted me, the Supreme Court relied on this testimony to reinstate my wrongful conviction. Just think about it: not once did Stoycos say to my trial judge--or any other judge up to and including the U.S. Supreme Court--that the testimony before them was false.

These are the degrees that prosecutors will go to in order to maintain a wrongful conviction. They have total disregard for the law and for justice. Until they are held fully accountable by criminal charges, nothing will change. Judge Goethals's principled action in Orange County is a promising step in that direction.

Lorenzo Johnson served 16 and a half years of a life-without-parole sentence, from 1995 to 2012, when the Third Circuit Federal Court of Appeals ruled there was legally insufficient evidence for his conviction. He remained free for four months, after which the US Supreme Court unanimously reinstated the conviction and ordered Lorenzo back to prison to resume the sentence. With the help of Michael Wiseman, Esq., The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, The Campaign to Free Lorenzo Johnson, and others, he is continuing to fight for his freedom. Email him or sign his petition and learn more at: http://www.freelorenzojohnson.org/sign-the-petition.html.