(CN) — Identifying police misconduct in a whopping 72% percent of cases where a defendant sentenced to death was later exonerated, legal researchers published a sobering report Tuesday on the coercive techniques that led to the false convictions of more than 2,600 Americans since 1989.
The National Registry of Exonerations — a collaboration of the University of California at Irvine’s Newkirk Center for Science and Society, the University of Michigan Law School, and Michigan State University College of Law — published the study with details on a number of famously botched prosecutions from the last 30 years.
While police account for the misdeeds in many of the most severe cases, wrongdoing from prosecutors is observed as well.
Such was the case in 1994, when Jabbar Collins was convicted of murder in Brooklyn after three witnesses lied that they hadn’t made deals in return for their testimony.
“The prosecutor not only failed to correct the record but ridiculed the claim that such deals had been made in his argument to the jury,” the report says. “In 2010, a federal judge compelled the prosecution to produce withheld documents that described how the prosecution had threatened and manipulated the witnesses, and eventually struck deals with them.”
Tuesday’s report also details the 2003 verdict in Detroit against supposed terror plotters Abdel-Ila Elmardoudi, Karim Koubriti and Ahmed Hannan.
“The prosecution focused heavily on drawings by the defendants that allegedly depicted one such ‘target’ — a hospital in Jordan,” the report says. “In fact, the prosecutor knew that the drawings were among a set of harmless sketches of the entire region, and the prosecutor concealed actual photographs of the hospital taken by a State Department investigator. When the investigator lied under oath and said he had no comparison photographs of the hospital, the prosecutor let the perjury stand. All three defendants were exonerated in 2004.”
Whether from prosecutors or police, official misconduct was observed in 54% of cases where defendants were later exonerated. Among the more surprising of the report’s conclusions, Samuel Gross, a professor emeritus of law at University of Michigan, highlighted “the finding the prosecutorial misconduct is so very common in federal white-collar crime exonerations.”
“I hope it encourages all of us to take action to address the problem of official misconduct in criminal investigations and prosecutions,” Gross, who is senior editor of the report, said in an interview.
While prosecutors tend to get in trouble for how they present evidence to a jury, misconduct for police can involve questionable interrogation techniques to snare a false confession, evidence fabrication and witness tampering.
As for why misconduct occurs, the report heaps blame on “pervasive practices that permit or reward bad behavior, lack of resources to conduct high quality investigations and prosecutions, and ineffective leadership by those in command.” In some cases, police department policy encourages the elicitation of false confessions by allowing officers to make promises and threats, to lie about the investigation, and to interrogate juveniles without their parents or guardians.
Gross said there are many causes for misconduct, “including just trying to deal with cases quickly and cheaply.”
“There is no one solution because this is not a single issue,” said Gross, “just as there is no single treatment for ‘disease.'”
As for a fix, researchers emphasize that changing destructive work cultures that breed misconduct will require strong leadership and perhaps local political support.
“The only effective national remedy to entrenched forms of official misconduct is a change in the national culture that governs this work,” the study concludes.
Discussing the report in an interview Tuesday, David Thomas, a professor of justice studies at Florida Gulf Coast University, said the problem is made worse by the politicization of police and prosecutorial work.
“Those are positions that should never be politicized,” Thomas said. “And yet, their very existence and success or failure is based on public opinion.”
He noted as an example how a police chief’s tenure tends to turn on public opinion, which might be overly focused on how many cases are being solved or prosecuted.
Prosecutors too, are subject to this scrutiny.
“How they are judged and how they’re critiqued by the public is based on the amount of convictions that they get,” Thomas said. “If there are heinous crimes that have been committed, and atrocities that have been committed, then they win the public’s favor by prosecuting defendants and putting them in jail or sometimes putting those people on death row.”
Thomas said that high percentages of innocent people being convicted on death row “should tell you that there is a problem in that process, either with the police or the prosecutors or something that they have come together in order to accomplish the goal of putting somebody away.”
Klara Stephens, a former research scholar at the registry who co-authored the report, tweeted Tuesday that public defenders would do well to highlight the report’s findings in their briefs.
The average time that exonerees spent in jail on murder charges of which they were later cleared was 13.9 years. Researchers found that police and prosecutors withheld evidence that would have cleared the defendant in 61% of erroneous murder convictions.
As for racial disparities, the study says that Black defendants were more often falsely convicted than white defendants, especially in drug cases where they saw 12 times the likelihood of a false conviction.
“Overall, male exonerees and Black exonerees were modestly more likely to experience misconduct (with some larger differences by race for a few particular crimes),” the report states.
White defendants are more frequently the victims of false convictions when facing charges like corruption and fraud, the study also notes.
Another discrepancy highlighted in the report is that “the rate of official misconduct is somewhat higher among exonerations in federal cases than in state cases,” at 61–54%.
“There is a much larger difference, however, between the rates of misconduct in state and federal exonerations by prosecutors and by police officers,” the report continues.
Police officers are only slightly more likely to commit misconduct than prosecutors in state cases (36% to 29%), but in federal cases prosecutors committed misconduct in 52% of these cases compared to police, who committed misconduct in 20%, comparatively.