“You can’t just count on an adversary to voluntarily expose all of their weaknesses,” John Oliver exclaimed, in a brilliant exposé of the problems with the American judicial system on his late-night show. Oliver demonstrated that the adversary is the prosecutor and the weakness is the evidence they collect. He explained that in a criminal case, prosecutors can deliberately withhold exonerating evidence from the courtroom when attempting to convict an individual — even someone who may very well be innocent.
While that alone may be difficult to swallow, the list of problems in our criminal justice system, specifically with prosecutors, continues to grow. This is all due to an outstanding problem that is a theme in most government entities: an utter absence of accountability.
In his pursuit to unmask the perils of the criminal justice system, Oliver relayed to his television audience the heartbreaking story of Michael Morton, a Texas man who was wrongfully sentenced to life in prison for the murder of his wife. Determined to prove his innocence, Morton clung to a dwindling thread of hope that one day he would be a free man, haunted with the knowledge that his wife’s actual killer was still out there.
Twenty-five years later, Morton was let out of prison and exonerated with the help of DNA evidence, only to find out that the reason for his wrongful conviction was because his prosecutor, Ken Anderson, withheld evidence from the murder trial. In a seemingly power-hungry attempt to score a conviction, Anderson helped lock Morton away while the real murderer went on to kill again. In return for taking away 25 years of an innocent man's life, Anderson spent just five days in jail and was hit with a small fee of $500.
Morton’s case was especially unique because of the small punishment his prosecutor received. The sad reality is that the use of slimy tactics usually goes unpunished if you’re a government attorney. Out of 660 cases confirmed cases of prosecutorial misconduct, the number of prosecutors disciplined was just one. It’s clear that the judicial system, a system which preaches justice and truth, is simply not holding its own accountable.
Unlike Anderson’s punishment, Morton’s wrongful conviction is not an uncommon occurrence. Over 2,000 people have been exonerated for crimes they did not commit since 1989. Nearly half of these exonerations point to “official misconduct” meaning that a government official likely abused their power to win a conviction. A whopping 120 of those wrongly imprisoned also spent time on death row. To me this illustrates that the selfishness of one individual prosecutor in a position of power could lead to the death of innocents.
It’s clear that addressing prosecutorial misconduct is of grave importance. When prosecutors knowingly withhold evidence from the courtroom in order to secure a conviction, they need to be held responsible for their actions. This practice is a gross distortion of justice which can no longer be punished with a mere slap on the wrist. Prosecutors across the country are quick to dole out harsh punishments for petty crimes like marijuana possession or trespassing, yet the laws are severely lacking, and in most states completely absent, when it comes to discipline for prosecutorial misconduct — a stunt which results in severe consequences for innocent people.
There are plenty of great prosecutors who work hard to lock up actual criminals. A few even use their power to create meaningful change by reducing the use of incarceration to improve outcomes for offenders. But in such an important position — which grants officials broad discretion to file criminal charges, determine plea deals, examine evidence, and dismiss cases — prosecutorial power must not go unchecked.
Prosecutors should face a felony, at minimum, for misconduct in the judicial system. If the law doesn’t enforce an ethical standard for their work, government attorneys have little incentive to treat the accused fairly. What happened to Morton, and over 2,000 other individuals is a devastating reality of a criminal justice system that has failed miserably to secure justice when it’s needed the most. The law needs to change in order to avoid these cases from recurring, because if our government doesn’t hold their employees accountable, no one will.
Molly Davis is a policy analyst at Libertas Institute, a free market think tank in Utah. She is also a writer for Young Voices. Her work has previously appeared in Town Hall, Daily Caller and The Salt Lake Tribune.