Why Prosecutors Rarely Admit Mistakes

We give an astonishing amount of power to criminal prosecutors in this country, power that is often abused. And when they get it wrong, which happens a lot more often than most people would ever believe, getting them to admit it is very, very difficult. The Cleveland Plain Dealer reports on some local examples:

Soon after Summit County Common Pleas Judge Judy Hunter exonerated Douglas Prade last week in the slaying of his former wife, prosecutors announced they would appeal.

At the same time, Cuyahoga County prosecutors said they would continue to appeal Joseph D’Ambrosio’s case — days after a judge ruled that he was wrongfully imprisoned for a slaying that put him on death row for about 21 years.

The cases highlight a mindset under which some prosecutors have continued their legal assaults on defendants after judges — following thorough, articulated reviews — attacked government attorneys as lacking even the basics needed to take their cases to trial…

“There is a litany of cases where some prosecutors have fought to keep convictions rather than work to find justice,” said Michael Benza, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University who also represented Brett Hartman. The state executed Hartman in November for the slaying of a woman in Summit County.

“It’s very difficult for some prosecutors to admit that they have made a mistake,” Benza said. “If you make a mistake in this case, how many other mistakes have you made?”

And that is exactly the problem. Not only is it almost impossible to get them to admit to a wrongful conviction, they generally fight tooth and nail to prevent even the possibility of ever finding out if there was a wrongful conviction. In many cases, they fight against the testing of DNA evidence that could prove someone’s innocence after conviction, as they fought on the wrong side (along with the Obama administration) with the Supreme Court against a due process right to access and test DNA evidence.

There are exceptions, of course. Craig Watkins, the district attorney in Dallas, has established in his office a group that goes through old convictions to see if any of them were suspect, and he’s worked hand in hand with the Texas Innocence Project to prevent wrongful convictions in his district. As a result, more men have been exonerated in his district than any other. If you just look, wrongful convictions aren’t hard to find.

But too many prosecutors spend their time fighting against finding and preventing wrongful convictions because the incentives are all wrong. They’re afraid that if they lose one case, it will cast doubts on their infallibility and make people question the legitimacy of the criminal justice system. Which sounds like a great argument in favor of seeking out wrongful convictions, not covering them up. People should doubt the criminal justice system.

23 comments on this post.
  1. tbp1:

    I think there’s also the adversarial nature of the law. People who become DAs and trial attorneys are often very competitive type-A personalities, and tend to be way more interested in their win/loss record than the actual guilt or innocence of the accused or establishing the truth. It’s truly a game to them.

  2. jws1:

    And then there’s those who do indeed question the criminal justice system, every time somebody gets acquitted they screech and howl about how a “monster” is now “running the streets.” Even after some are exonerated by/through the system, some people still stubbornly maintain that the party in question is really “guilty.” A prime example is the white reaction to the Ray Lewis case, re-hashed this past week or so.

  3. Bronze Dog:

    Something about this ended up triggering an alternative thought about prosecutors. Normally, I tend to think of them as “win at any cost” because they’ve got the wrong incentives. This time, I ended up thinking some might do it because they’re so insecure about their methods that entertaining the tiniest doubt will open a floodgate and drown them in guilt and self-doubt, so they try to suppress anything that “officially” recognizes their mistakes. The twisted incentives are probably the more prevalent cause, though.

  4. abb3w:

    I wonder how much (if any) it’s due to the emphasis on the “adversarial” approach. A defense attorney is supposed to give a vigorous defense, even of a client who committed the offense, because the adversarial nature of the process is expected to insure justice regardless. Is this a symmetric problem, where the prosecution feels driven to maintain the course regardless?

  5. Childermass:

    Only an idiot would think a D.A. or anyone else is infallible.

    If anything, as a juror I would be more likely to listen to a D.A. which I knew went out of the way to fix the mistakes of justice. People who never admit mistakes have no respect for truth. A lack of respect of truth means that you can’t trust the D.A. when he says that the person on trial today is guilty.

    D.A.s and other public employees who coverup mistakes damage justice far more then merely not going after the real murder, thief, or whatever. They make it harder to deliver justice even when they do get the right guy. Not to mention the question of how many crimes go unsolved because people realize that they can’t trust the law to say what they know?

  6. sbh:

    One of the main reasons I lack confidence in the criminal justice system (personal experience aside) is the lack of prosecutorial accountability–indeed, the lack of any reliable mechanism for preventing or reversing wrongful convictions. Executive pardons don’t cut it.

  7. slc1:

    Theoretically, the prosecutor i supposed to do justice. Unfortunately, all too many prosecutors have the attitude of the late former Raiders owner Al Davis: “just win baby”.

    The reluctance of prosecutors to consider new evidence (e.g. DNA), particularly in capital cases, is because the exoneration of a convicted defendant on death row is likely to make juries less likely to apply capital punishment in future cases.

    There is also the attitude of people like the late and unlamented Dominick Dunne who opined that even an erroneously convicted defended was probably guilty of other crimes for which he was either not suspected or where there was insufficient evidence to convict so the erroneous conviction is just “evening the score”.

  8. Childermass:

    Re: the adversary system.

    I don’t see any way to get rid of it that would be worse then what it is meant to cure. So long as we give defendants the right to insist they are innocent, the right to say they they don’t deserve the punishment suggested for them, and the right to have a lawyer then they are going to going against the D.A.

    The real problem is that too many people think that the job of prosecutor is to put people in jail. While it is true that will often be the result of doing their job, that is not what their job is. Their job is to uphold the law, to seek justice, and to represent the people in court. The most important part of that job is to for them to try to honestly determine if someone really did what they did. When they fail to do that, they are failing to do what they are employed by the people to do. Once they think they have an answer, that is the time to go to court to represent that answer (though only so long as they still believe it). Of course they are fallible both in determining actual guilt and in suggesting appropriate punishment. Thus we demand that the accused also have someone to represent them in court.

  9. zippythepinhead:

    I’m reminded of this, from Errol Morris’ documentary “The Thin Blue Line”:

    “Prosecutors in Dallas have said for years – any prosecutor can convict a guilty man. It takes a great prosecutor to convict an innocent man.”

  10. slc1:

    Re jws1 @ #2

    Apropos of Ray Lewis, the Ramsey case was back in the news last week as leaks from the grand jury inquiry claimed that the jury voted to indite the Ramseys for child endangerment, which was rejected by the District Attorney, Alex Hunter, to his everlasting credit. Already, his critics are on his case again and also on one of his successors for declaring that the Ramseys were no longer persons of interest because of DNA results. The critics claim that the DNA results are inclusive because the DNA could have come from anywhere, totally ignoring the fact that some of the samples came from under Jon Benet’s fingernails. If the authorities ever found a match for that DNA, it would be sufficient to convict the individual so calling it inclusive is poppycock. The fact is that the Ramseys-are-guilty crowd is much like the anti-evolution crowd, no evidence will convince them that they are full of it.

  11. Sastra:

    slc 1 #7 wrote:

    There is also the attitude of people like the late and unlamented Dominick Dunne who opined that even an erroneously convicted defended was probably guilty of other crimes for which he was either not suspected or where there was insufficient evidence to convict so the erroneous conviction is just “evening the score”.

    I think that’s a pretty common attitude with a lot of roots. One root feeding it might be what’s called the Just World fallacy: everything turns out fair in the end. If someone is wrongfully convicted, then the Universe/God/Spirit probably had a reason behind it. They were probably guilty of something else. Bad things never happen to good people — and once you’re bad, you’re bad. Checking DNA evidence is splitting hairs.

  12. slc1:

    Re #10

    That should be inconclusive, not inclusive.

  13. d.c.wilson:

    Prosecutors don’t get promoted from doing justice. Tey get promoted for winning cases. All if the incentives are stacked on the side of “win at all costs”.

  14. slc1:

    Re Sastra @ #11

    What the Dominick Dunnes of the world fail to understand is that, if person A is innocent of a crime and is convicted, then person B who is guilty has gotten away with it. There is no guarantee that person B will subsequently be convicted of some other crime to “even the score”. Not all criminals are caught.

  15. RH:

    I don’t know anything aobut Craig Watkins but if what you say is true he deserves an award.

    How American Holds Court addresses this issue to some degree but I think it underestimates this aspect of the problem.

  16. busterggi:

    Prosecutors don’t care about justicce, they only care about racking up numbers in their win column. If they can hide enough evidence or block enough witnesses then those are just considered winning tactics.

  17. Caveat Imperator:

    I’ve long been opposed to election of judges, should public prosecutors stop being electable positions as well?

  18. wscott:

    “It’s very difficult for some prosecutors to admit that they have made a mistake,”

    Of course that’s true for humans in general. The costs are just higher than normal when prosecutors fall prey to it.

  19. Infophile:

    @9 zippythepinhead: “Prosecutors in Dallas have said for years – any prosecutor can convict a guilty man. It takes a great prosecutor to convict an innocent man.”

    Well, that makes the solution obvious. Make it routine to fire the prosecutors who win the most cases. The ones left over will be the crappy prosecutors, who can only convict guilty people. Problem solved.

  20. Markita Lynda—threadrupt:

    And that’s why, if you are ever arrested, you should refuse to say anything to the police. They can trick, coerce, or bamboozle you into saying something incriminating; but they are not required to record, report, nor share anything that exonerates you.

  21. Didaktylos:

    Whenever a conviction is overturned, decimate all prosecutors in that jurisdiction.

  22. slc1:

    Re Markita Lynda @ #20

    Actually, out of court statements of innocence by defendants are not admissible because they are considered self serving. Out of court statements that appear to be admissions of guilt are admissible as they are considered statements against interest.

  23. When False Evidence Isn't, or Finality & Freedom | RHDefense: The Law Office of Rick Horowitz:

    [...] Or, to put it another way, [...]

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