The Problem of Prosecutorial Misconduct in Criminal Cases in America

About the author: Samuel Carter is a prominent essayist, dissertation and research paper writer, currently working at Reading and writing are his passions and his job at writing company gives him a space to share his writing experience. Except for his job, Samuel has such hobbies like swimming, diving, and comics. His biggest dream is to become a world-famous writer. 


The Fifth Amendment protects defendants in two main ways. First, a defendant is not or cannot be “compelled …to be against himself” (Barkan & Bryjak, 2011). This nature of criminal cases paves a way for the second protection. The state, as represented by the prosecutor, has the burden of proof. In the 1935 case of Beger vs. United States, the Supreme Court states that a prosecutor should present “a sovereignty whose obligation is to govern impartially is as compelling as its obligation to govern at all; and whose interest, therefore, in a criminal prosecution is not that it shall win a case, but that justice shall be done” (Barkan & BryjK, 2011). Despite the effort to establish justice for both parties, prosecutorial misconduct continues to take Place. Over the years, prosecutorial misconduct has been used by judges as a basis to reduce sentences, reverse convictions or dismiss charges. When such misconduct is established, it promotes distrust between the state and the people. The people tend to believe that the authorities can easily violate their human rights.


Prosecutorial misconduct is taken to be the prosecutor’s act of using reprehensible, illegal or deceptive means in order to move the jury or court. From another angle, it is used as a procedural defense by the defendants. Using this defense, the defendants state that they are not criminally liable for law breaking as pertaining to the case in question. The defendant claims that the prosecutor’s inappropriate conduct relieves him or her from any criminal liability. There are recent discussions that entail the contexts in which this term should be used. The prosecutors continue to state that the term should not be used in the cases unintended errors. Additionally, the prosecutors feel that the term should not be restricted to the scenarios related to ethical misconduct (Josk & Congressional Quarterly, 2007)


The study determines the problem of prosecutorial misconduct in American criminal cases. The study as well identifies the ways in which prosecutorial misconduct affects the American justice system and public.

Historical Examples in Prosecutorial Misconduct

The 1935 case of Berger vs. United States was one of the earliest cases that dealt with prosecutorial misconduct exclusively. The petitioner had earlier been charged with the conspiracy of collaborating with others so that they uttered counterfeit notes asserting to be given by selected Federal Reserve banks, being aware of the counterfeits (Lawles, 2008). The prosecutor was accused of furnishing information linking the petitioner to all the crimes involved as well as using the same furnished evidence in order to influence the verdict of the other parties charged.

The 1963 case titled Brady vs. Maryland was another example presenting prosecutorial misconduct. Initially, Maryland had prosecuted Boblit and Brady for murder. Boblit confessed that he had performed the act of killing by himself. This proved Brady’s confession of his involvement in the murder without performing the act. The prosecution withheld Boblit’s confession. In this case, the judge stated that the disclosure of all information was relevant even though it may not have exculpated the defendant (Lawless, 2008).

In John Demjanjuk case of 1986, John Demjanjuk became a prosecutorial misconduct victim as ruled by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in 1993. It was identified that the federal officers in the 1986 trial had withheld relevant evidence. As a result the court had to overturn the sentence. However, the defendant still lost the case after its retrial (Lawless, 2008).

The 1995 case of O.J. Simpson set another example of prosecutorial misconduct. In 1995 the court found that O.J Simpson was answerable to the civil court as he was found liable for the deaths aligning with the case in question. This verdict was made by the jury after they announced him as “not guilty” after alleging that Mark Fuhrman (Los Angeles detective) had planted evidence of the crime scene. Although these allegations were not solidly proven, it is believed that the accusations may have put some amount of distrust on the prosecuting team (Lawless, 2008).

The case about Duke Lacrosse as tried in 2006 presents another incident of the prosecutorial misconduct effects. The Lacrosse team of the University of Duke had hired a stripper (female) to entertain the players at the team’s party. The stripper later filed a statement indicating that she had been raped by three players during the party. The case became more sensitive because the accuser was African American and the players were white. The case producer was Mike Nifong. The facts and actions pertaining to the case drew a lot of criticisms from the public and other legally affiliated parties. The prosecutor did not find any solid DNA evidence that connected the accused players with the sexual assault in question. Additionally, each of the accused players had solid alibis supporting their explanations of their whereabouts during the period in which the accuser said the act took place (Seigel, 2009). Nevertheless, the prosecutor went ahead to prosecute the accused. Additionally, he made a number of comments in the media that were considered as inflammatory. The district attorney of North Carolina declared the players as innocent when the charges were dropped after the collapse of the case. Eventually, as an outcome of the case, the State Bar of North Carolina disbarred Mike Nifong.

Influencing Factors

Prosecutorial misconduct continues to play a significant role in the increase of the number of wrongful convictions. Despite the destructive results of this alarming problem, there seems to be insufficient information that offers the reasons that lead these prosecutors to misconduct in such manners. One of the key steps in finding a solution to a problem is finding the cause of the problem. One of the identifiable causes of prosecutorial misconduct is the pressure to perform. As indicated earlier, the Constitution clarifies that the burden of proof lies on the prosecutor since he acts on behalf of the state (the people), and is under pressure from the people to produce the needed evidence linking the defendant to the crime. He also is under pressure arising from his superiors as they evaluate the prosecutor’s performance on the basis of the successful convictions made (Pollock, 2007). The pressure from competition arising from the peers leads many prosecutors to behave themselves in such uncouth ways.

In the 1963 case of Brady vs. Maryland, the prosecutorial misconduct relating to the withholding of information that was relevant to the case shows the disparity of those who are willing to “perform” regardless of the means used. When performing this act, the prosecutor thought that his actions would be addressed in the same manner as was in the case Mooney vs. Holohan (Medwed, 2012).

Personal ambitions propel many people to engage in both illegal and unethical misconduct and the prosecutors are not immune to such temptations (Fordham, 2007). The need to succeed, attract attention, gain some form of social status or achieve a personal goal is a force that is prevalent in the legal field as it is present anywhere else. Unlike working in a legal firm where the chances of climbing both the social and corporate ladder heighten rapidly, working in the DA’s office can be quite limiting. Such circumstances continue to pave the way for opportunities that would attract a prosecutor to receive incentives or become manipulative in order to achieve this personal ambition. The Duke Lacrosse vs. North Carolina presents a scenario of misconduct for the purposes of leaving a legacy. This case represented a perfect example of the racially based issues that bring controversy in the justice system. This black female stripper was accusing three white college sportsmen of rape. Mike Nifong must have seen this as an opportunity to show the public that the justice system was indeed justice (Siegel, 2009). However, his need to leave a legacy blinded him from the real facts at hand. He had no evidence to support his case against the defenders yet he still went on prosecuting them. Additionally, the remarks he made to the media presented him as someone who is after proving himself rather than bringing justice to the parties involved.

The impact of peer influence does not present any exceptions. The presence of morally and ethically decayed personnel in this public office can have a major impact on the personnel in the whole institution (Fordham, 2007). Patterns set by former prosecutors can play a significant role in shaping the succeeding prosecutors. These prosecutors end up leaving a compromised. The succeeding prosecutors are then left with two options. They can either start on a new direction that rectifies the corrupt trend set or they can continue with the same trend. The former option is usually a challenging direction to take. This becomes more challenging depending on the extent to which such form of conduct has taken toll of the institution. The second option is easier as it requires the prosecutor to “flow with the current” (Fordham, 2007).

An example of such a scenario was in the case of Terrance Williams as conducted in Pennsylvania. Suring his trial, the prosecution failed to present sexual abuse evidence as pertaining to the accused and as a result Terrance was sentenced to the death row. When District Attorney Seth Williams took office in 2012, he continued to defend the death penalty sentence given to Williams despite some form of misconduct observed on the prosecution’s side and the fact that the convict had killed his sexual abusers as a child. Additionally, DA Williams did not attempt to rectify the contradictory case. For example, he engaged in journalist misconduct for he failed to mention about the withheld evidence in his report (Roger, 2012).

There should be no excuse for prosecutorial misconduct. However, the relevant parties should deal with the causes of such misconduct. The pressure to win cases, personal ambitions/interests and the presence of ethically corrupt individuals are the main issues driving the increase of these misconduct forms. State and authority punishments for such deeds may not be the only remedy for preventing the causes. Further steps need to be taken in order to observe the other avenues/methods that can be incorporated into the system so that the prosecutors feel that they do have to conduct themselves in the said manner.

Impact of Prosecutorial Misconduct

One of the most evident impacts of prosecutorial misconduct is the wrongful convictions of the accused. Wrongful convictions include jailing the wrong person or wrongful sentencing. In the 1979 case of Thomas Lee Goldstein, the sentence was overturned after post prosecution evidence proved the jailhouse informant’s perjury (Vollen & Eggers, 2005). The Jailhouse informant had testified that he Goldstein had confessed of taking part in the shooting. This testimony was in addition to the testimony by an eyewitness at the beach who claimed that he had seen Goldstein shooting. Goldstein had been accused of the shooting in Long Beach, California in 1979. Another scenario showing the impact of prosecutorial misconduct is the 2011 release of Timothy Lee Masters who is popularly known as Tim Masters. In the Timothy Lee Masters case, the defendant was convicted in 1999 of life imprisonment without parole after being found guilty of killing Peggy Hettrick in 1987 (Medwed, 2012). However, DNA evidence found on the crime scene after the trial proved that he was not the murder. Additionally, it was identified that the prosecutors withheld evidence proving that the fingerprints found on the clothing, hair and purse of the victim did not belong to Masters.

The effect of misconduct on wrongful sentencing is established on the Brady vs. Maryland case. The judge stated that the release of every evidence/information was relevant in the sentencing of the accused even though it may not exculpate the defendant. In court sentencing, the difference between the death penalty and life imprisonment might be the release of some more information. The sentencing in first, second and third degree murders are quite different. All the evidence available is relevant in differentiating these forms of murders.

Prosecutorial misconduct hinders justice from the victims and the public (Fordham, 2007). When a defendant is wrongfully convicted, the criminal is left with the public, thus exposing the public to more danger. For example, the criminal who murdered Peggy Hettrick is at large since there are no persons who have been arrested for her murder after the release of Masters. Hettrick’s family still feel that justice was not served as the criminal who murdered their loved one was not brought to it.

Role of State and Federal Government

The role of the state and the federal government is to discipline the prosecutor and any other parties who conduct themselves in such a manner. It may also introduce rules that give the consequences of such misconduct depending on the nature of the act. The state of Texas and California engage in constant evaluations to determine the state of prosecutorial misconduct in their states (Jost & Congressional Quarterly, 2007). This includes conducting researches and writing reports that state the findings and recommendation pertaining to the incidences at hand. The State Bar engages in criminal disciplining the prosecutors in various ways found suitable in accordance with the misconduct in question.

The state may also compensate the defendant for the time spent in prison. However, such actions are exclusive to the federal governments. Some states offer uniformed compensation to the defendants. In other states, the compensation offered depends on the nature of the damage done by the whole process. An example of acts pertaining to the role of the state in prosecutorial misconduct is in the Duke Lacrosse case. The State Bar disciplined the district attorney by disbarring him. Another way of the state’s participation is evident in the 2007 Goldstein vs. Van De Kamp case (Medwed, 2012). Goldstein wanted the state to hold the district attorney liable for the office’s misconduct during his trial. The withheld information was trivial to the case as evident in Brady vs. Maryland.

The state and the federal government have the responsibility to keep track of these cases of prosecutorial misconduct. This will allow these authorities to discipline prosecutors showing repeated cases of misconduct. It will allow these authorities to assess the problematic areas to mould permanent solutions. The authorities also have a responsibility to clarify to the public on the misconceived areas related to the institution or a case in question (Neubauer, 1999). The federal government and the state have the responsibility to protect the state (public), prosecutors and defendants.

Effects of Misconduct on the Justice System

One of the main effects is the lack of trust building up in the eyes of the public (Barkan & Bryjak, 2008). The people need to have complete trust in the integrity of the justice and judicial system. However, this trust is shaken when these misconducts start building up. The people feel as though the prosecution can manipulate the evidence and misuse its power to violate the rights of people. Some strong institutions have their focus on the judicial and justice system. One of these institutions is the media. The media is quite keen on the cases taking place in the courts. Any form of misconduct by the district attorney or the detectives in charge of such cases receives great media coverage, thus alerting the whole society. This information further alarms the public. As a result, the people might take actions that place a threat to their security and the well-being of the whole society. For example, the people can be enticed to take law into their own hands if they lack faith in the justice system. In the case of Terrance Williams, the defendant took matters into his own hands and sort vengeance for his abusers (Roger, 2012). Hundreds of cases take place all over the nation pertaining to people who take matters into their own hands for lack of belief into the justice system.

Misconducts give rise to other cases, thus bringing a backlog of cases on the already crowded system. If a prosecutor engages in any form of misconduct, then there is another case filed in order to hold the prosecution liable. Such cases of misconduct also cost the justice system in terms of the resources used. The Center for Public Integrity conducted a research 11,452 cases dating from 1970 to 2003. The research team found out that the judges had reduced sentences, reversed convictions or dismissed charges in 2,012 cases of the selected cases (Pollock, 2007). This translated to loss of time and other resources wasted on the original trials.

Response of the State and Federal Governments

The state and federal governments are attempting to remedy such forms of misconducts. As earlier stated, the states of Texas and California are engaging in the constant reconciliation of reports in order to evaluate the state of such misconducts. Both the state and the federal governments did not highly consider assessing and disciplining the parties involved in repeated misconducts. DA Nifong is one of the many attorneys that have been disbarred for gross misconduct. The federal state is taking great precaution when vetting the parties that are viable to fight for the district attorney’s office. Education on the issues pertaining to prosecutorial misconduct is an o-going process in many states, if not all (Siegel, 2009).


The increase of cases related to prosecutorial misconduct is propelled by various forms of pressure from diverse avenues enacted on the prosecution, personal goals/ambitions and the presence of morally and ethically decayed predecessors. Various cases continue to prove the prevailing impact of prosecutorial misconduct. Brady vs. Maryland is the main reference case pertaining to this issue. The state and the government have taken part in a number of states as pertaining to the cause and impact of prosecutorial misconduct. However, there should be more remedies put in place.

The research determines the problem of prosecutorial misconduct in as far as criminal cases in the nation are concerned. Some of the remedies evident include the constant and frequent evaluation of prosecutors including the detectives and the district attorneys. Disciplining prosecutorial misconduct should be highly upheld. Similarly, disciplining recurrent misconducts in an individual is another significant step towards controlling this problem. There should be active discipline instilled on those members who are on the non-prosecuting team (Fordham, 2007).

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