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California Felonizes Some Prosecutorial Misconduct

by Matt Clarke

On September 30, 2016, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a bill that was introduced by Assemblywoman Patty Lopez (D-San Fernando), felonizing some prosecutorial misconduct. Under the new law, a prosecutor can be sentenced to up to three years in prison for altering or intentionally withholding evidence that could help exonerate a defendant.

Previously, such prosecutorial misconduct was a misdemeanor, but a 2010 study of prosecutorial misconduct by the Santa Clara School of Law’s Veritas Initiative found that “courts fail to report prosecutorial misconduct (despite having a statutory obligation to do so), prosecutors deny that it occurred, and the California State Bar almost never disciplines it.”

“I hear so many stories about innocent people across California, and across the country, who have been wrongfully convicted,” said Lopez. “I just hope that when people think the rules don’t apply to them, they will think twice before they abuse their power.”

“When a prosecutor intentionally withholds exculpatory evidence, an unknowing and innocent defendant can be convicted, sentenced, and incarcerated for a long time,” according to California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, a group of criminal defense attorneys that supported the bill. “These bad-acting prosecutors rarely, if ever, face any actual consequences for their actions.”

Obie Anthony, 43, knows all about that. He served 17 years in prison after being convicted in 1995 of committing a murder outside a South Los Angeles brothel. His exoneration followed the revelation that a pimp who was a key prosecution witness received leniency for his testimony—a fact withheld from the defense.

“I’m glad the governor decided to put his foot down,” said Anthony, who told his story to lawmakers in hopes of drumming up support for the bill. “I went to talk to them about how those bad-acting prosecutors took 17 years of my life.” Following his exoneration, Anthony moved to Missouri where he runs Exonerated Nation, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the wrongly convicted.

As the bill was being introduced into the state senate, a series of scandals led to wave after wave of prosecutorial misconduct revelations. One of them resulted in the entire Orange County District Attorney’s Office being removed from the high-profile murder prosecution of Scott Dekraai.

Even Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas supported the bill’s passage. On the other hand, the California District Attorneys Association initially opposed the bill but later took a neutral stance on it after concerns about accidental nondisclosure were addressed in amendments.

CLN applauds the new law as a small step in the right direction. However, there is no reason to necessarily believe that it will result in prosecutions or improved disclosure of exculpatory evidence. Since the parties responsible for addressing prosecutorial misconduct largely ignored instances thereof prior to passage of the bill, there is no reason to automatically assume that they will now conscientiously enforce the new law. 



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