The Chronic Failure to Discipline Prosecutors for Misconduct: Proposals for Reform

Sullivan, Thomas P., Possley, Maurice | January 1, 2015

While most prosecutors adhere to the maxim that their primary task is to obtain just results, there are some who violate their ethical responsibilities in order to rack up convictions. This article describes the distressing, decades-long absence of discipline imposed on prosecutors whose knowing misconduct has resulted in terrible injustices being visited upon defendants throughout the country. Many honorable lawyers have failed to speak out about errant prosecutors, thus enabling their ethical breaches. The silent accessories include practicing lawyers and judges of trial and reviewing courts who, having observed prosecutorial misconduct, failed to take corrective action. Fault also lies with members of attorney disciplinary bodies who have not investigated widely publicized prosecutorial misconduct. This article summarizes the rules requiring all members of the bar to report unethical conduct. We focus particularly on lawyers who serve in prosecutors’ offices, defense lawyers, and trial and reviewing court judges and their lawyer clerks, each of whom has a personal, non-delegable responsibility to report their knowledge of ethical breaches to disciplinary authorities.

In addition, the article identifies reforms to the justice system designed to reduce prosecutorial abuses: (1) substituting for the Brady rule a verifiable open-file pretrial discovery requirement on prosecutors; (2) instead of invoking harmless error, requiring reversal of convictions if serious prosecutorial misconduct is proven; (3) identifying errant prosecutors by name in trial and appellate opinions; (4) providing prosecutors with qualified instead of complete immunity from civil damages for misconduct; and (5) authorizing the Department of Justice’s Office of Inspector General to handle investigations of alleged misconduct by federal prosecutors. The article also proposes that attorney disciplinary bodies adopt changes designed to more effectively discover and sanction misbehaving prosecutors. Lawyer organizations and bar associations are urged to speak out when prosecutors deviate from appropriate conduct, and law schools are encouraged to include instruction on ethical rules peculiar to the criminal practice.