Monday, May 5, 2008

Prison Time for Prosecutors?

An intriguing article in the Dallas Morning News yesterday highlighted the call by Dallas County DA, Craig Watkins, for Texas legislation supporting criminal charges for prosecutors who withhold exculpatory evidence from the defense. (see AP story here) Rodney Ellis, Texas State Senator, who authored law creating the compensation system for wrongfully convicted inmates said he would support the criminalization. The Dallas Morning News reported further:
Wrongful convictions, nearly half of them involving prosecutorial misconduct, have cost Texas taxpayers $8.6 million in compensation since 2001, according to state comptroller records obtained by The Dallas Morning News. Dallas County accounts for about one-third of that.

Of the 45 wrongful conviction cases for which [Texas] has paid compensation, at least 22 involved prosecutors withholding evidence from the defense.
In the same vein, Ellis said:
. . . the total amount paid so far confirm[ed] his suspicion that wrongful convictions are far more common in Texas than people realize. Taxpayers should expect to pay "considerably" more as the number of exonerations rises.
Currently, there is no law in Texas allowing criminal charges for prosecutors who intentionally withhold exculpatory evidence. But the Innocence Project of Texas plans to push for such laws in the next session of the Texas legislature.

Wouldn't this light a fire under the backside of prosecutors all over Texas? But the prosecutor lobby is strong in Austin and the chances of such legislation passing are very low. I like the idea and the debate, though. Such laws would keep the prosecution constantly on the look-out for evidence exculpatory to the accused. Further, I see nothing wrong with holding prosecutors to a high standard with very harsh consequences for those who intentionally sidestep the rules. The tougher issue? What sanctions would be appropriate for a prosecutor withholding evidence by their negligent or reckless conduct? Maybe a discussion for another day.

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