Prosecutors Over the Line

Continuing the previous post about the San Jose Mercury News3-year study of a criminal justice system turned railroad, the following article focuses on the abuses of ambitious, win-at-all-costs prosecutors:


Prosecutors over the line


A Mercury News review of the work of Santa Clara County prosecutors turned up a chilling pattern: Three veteran deputy district attorneys — Benjamin Field, Terence Tighe and John Schon — made misjudgments or missteps in cases that ended in wrongful convictions. And in each instance, the district attorney’s office missed opportunities to correct the injustices, by failing to react to warning signs in those cases and others the prosecutors handled…

The Mercury News uncovered the pattern of troubling conduct involving Field, Tighe and Schon as part of a three-year study of Santa Clara County criminal justice. The review, which included an unprecedented review of 727 jury trial appeals, established that problems driven by the conduct of the prosecutor repeatedly mar criminal trials. The examination identified nearly 100 instances of questionable behavior within the study period, and dozens in additional cases, involving more than two dozen prosecutors. Many more trials were undermined by the failure of judges and defense attorneys to challenge prosecutors’ conduct…

(District Attorney George) Kennedy and his aides concede that the Mercury News found instances in which certain prosecutors acted inappropriately in their quest to win convictions — and that Field, Tighe and Schon were among those prosecutors.

“Are there people in this office who have acted improperly? It would be impossible to deny that,'’ Chief Assistant District Attorney Karyn Sinunu said. “Do we condone such conduct? I am confident we do not.'’

The three prosecutors insist that they have conducted themselves honorably, and each says the criticism from supervisors is unfair. Field said that he has strived “to play by the rules at all times.'’ Tighe blamed the concerns about him on untrustworthy defense attorneys whose accusations sparked a “witch hunt'’ within the office. Schon said, “I always played fair.'’

No one suggests that these or other prosecutors seek to lock up people without regard to their innocence. But some experts acknowledge a hazard of the profession: As prosecutors prepare for trial, they tend to become convinced of the rightness of their case — and unable to recognize the possibility of anything but guilt.

“The bottom line is that the more prosecutors get ready for the ‘battle’ of trial, the more they want to win,'’ said Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor and a professor at Loyola Law School. She said “there are great risks to justice when a prosecutor sees a criminal trial as a win-lose proposition.'’

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