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The Habeas Citebook: Prosecutorial Misconduct - Header
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Prosecutorial Misconduct Cause of More Than 550 Death Penalty Reversals and Exonerations

by Jacob Barrett

A study by the Death Penalty Information Center (“DPIC”) found more than 550 death penalty reversals and exonerations were the result of extensive prosecutorial misconduct. DPIC reviewed and identified cases since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned existing death penalty laws in 1972. That amounted to over 5.6% of all death sentences imposed in the U.S. in the last 50 years.

Robert Dunham, DPIC’s executive director, said the study reveals that this “‘epidemic’ of misconduct is even more pervasive than we had imagined.”

DPIC’s study included thousands of appellant opinions as well as existing studies of prosecutorial misconduct, but did not include cases in which a court found instances of prosecutors who had committed misconduct only by “harmless error,” or reversals in which defendants had been convicted of offenses resulting in lesser charges or sentences of life or a determinate term, but the prosecutors had initially sought the death penalty for.

The study showed a widespread problem in more than 228 counties, 32 states, and in federal capital prosecutions throughout the U.S.

The DPIC study revealed 35% of misconduct involved withholding evidence; 33% involved improper arguments; 16% involved more than one category of misconduct; and 121 of the exonerations involved prosecutor misconduct.

The study revealed that several instances of misconduct were so chronic they spanned several trials, which included the Mississippi case of Curtis Flowers, who faced four different trials and death sentences overturned due to prosecutor misconduct.

The study supported the DPIC’s 2021 study Report: The Innocence Epidemic, which documented more than 69% of death penalty exonerations involved prosecutorial misconduct. 


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