New York, Faced With Millions in Payouts for Prosecutorial Misconduct, Becomes First State to Create Oversight Commission
by Derek Gilna
New York Governor Mario Cuomo has signed a bill that many hope will rein in prosecutorial misconduct. New York, with 250 exonerations since 1989, has paid out millions of dollars in settlements. In an attempt to address this problem, New York assemblymen in June 2018, passed a bill calling for an independent public commission empowered to investigate prosecutorial misconduct.
The State Commission on Prosecutorial Conduct will be composed of 11 members, with two appointed by the governor, three by the chief judge of the state, and the balance by legislators of both parties. Their findings will be made public. It’s the first such state commission on prosecutorial conduct in the nation.
The commission will be empowered to initiate investigations and issue subpoenas. If misconduct is found, the commission will recommend sanctions ranging from a warning to termination. The governor will then have the option of imposing or disregarding the recommendation.
Part of New York’s payouts included $13 million to Jabbar Collins, who spent 16 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. However, for the prosecutor involved in that case, there were no consequences. Michael Vecchione, a Brooklyn prosecutor now found to have concealed exculpatory evidence in that case, retired in 2013 with a full pension. New York trails only Texas in the number of exonerations, and it appears that of the 250 exonerations in the state, at least one-third were attributable to prosecutorial misconduct, including evidence tampering, withholding of evidence, and pushing a witness to give false testimony.
Of course, this problem is not confined to New York. The lack of accountability for prosecutors is a nationwide problem, not only as to their conduct, but for their apparent inability or unwillingness to supervise hundreds of rogue police officers who provide false testimony and false evidence that contribute to wrongful convictions. Unfortunately, due to U.S. Supreme Court opinions, prosecutors generally escape any consequences, and in the rare instances they are disciplined, those actions are rarely made public and typically amount to nothing more than a slap on the wrist.
The bill establishing the new commission, similar in organization to the state’s judicial conduct commission, was passed with strong bipartisan support. It was opposed only by the people who are to be overseen by the organization, the local district attorneys.
In addition to hopefully reducing the number of wrongful prosecutions and convictions, the new commission may also reduce the probability that the state will be on the hook for multi-million dollar settlements like those in the Collins case, as well as spare the wrongfully-convicted individuals and their families the human cost of prosecutorial misconduct that robs them of years of their lives.
According to Rebecca Brown, director of policy at the Innocence Project, “I think it’s groundbreaking legislation. I hope this begins to move other states to follow.”
Sources: nytimes.com, slate.com