After Sending Innocent People to Prison, Prosecutors Don’t Bother to Trace Mistakes

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Imagine learning that your favorite airline suffered a crash last week and then failed to evaluate the cause. Imagine that your longtime physician amputated the wrong leg and never bothered to explore how that mistake was made.

Now imagine that the vast majority of prosecutors throughout the country do not evaluate the actions of their lawyers and police who, working as a team, caused a person to be wrongfully convicted, falsely imprisoned, for a crime that he or she didn’t commit.

This, regrettably, is today’s reality.

There have been at least 2,770 exonerations in the United States since 1989 and more than 25,000 years lost by incarcerated prisoners who were ultimately exonerated. The damage caused by these wrongful convictions is immeasurable. Lives have been crushed, families ruined, millions upon millions of dollars in compensation paid out. Often the real culprit is never pursued.

And, yet, despite the human toll and the cost to taxpayers, it remains exceedingly rare for a prosecutor to even admit errors after a wrongful conviction, let alone study and teach the cause of such injustice to prevent it from recurring. As a retired prosecutor with nearly four decades working in the field of criminal justice, I have personally watched this scenario play out in two wrongful convictions.

As part of a team with the Northern California Innocence Project, I worked to free Jeremy Puckett, who in 2020 was declared factually innocent of a Sacramento County murder he did not commit. His wrongful conviction was caused in large part by a chain of government errors and falsehoods: faulty medical evidence; law enforcement suppressing evidence; failure of the jury to hear an alibi; perjury by a trial witness who received a government benefit.

Mr. Puckett was falsely imprisoned for 19 years. The cause of that imprisonment should be reviewed just as the body cam footage of a police shooting is reviewed.

That still hasn’t happened.

The prosecutors, district attorney and attorney general who fought Mr. Puckett’s claim of innocence have not explained their mistakes to their staff, law enforcement or to the public. One deputy attorney general last year even balked at my request that Mr. Puckett’s state criminal history be erased following the judicial finding of his factual innocence.

This refusal to accept and examine missteps isn’t mere oversight — it’s often willful.

In the past decade many elected prosecutors have started their own type of innocence project, commonly called conviction integrity units. In 2012, Sacramento District Attorney Jan Scully said she didn’t need a formal conviction integrity unit like some other counties in California: “My whole office is an integrity unit.”

Her office was in the middle of fighting Mr. Puckett’s claims of innocence.

Since that time, Sacramento, like many counties, has launched a conviction integrity unit. And, yet, this unit has failed to examine false imprisonment and to publicly and internally dissect wrongful convictions.

In 2003, before helping to free Mr. Puckett, I worked with a team to undo the wrongful conviction of Rick Walker, who served 12 years in prison for a Santa Clara County murder he did not commit. Again, the wrongful conviction was caused in large part by the suppression of evidence as well as a witness who, after receiving a reduced sentence, framed Mr. Walker. A brief grand round of the errors was presented to the office staff in 2004 and a forerunner to a current conviction integrity unit was created — only to be disbanded in 2007.

Without thorough and transparent reviews, errors, suppressed evidence, faulty identification, false science and prosecutorial misconduct will continue. And so will wrongful convictions.

The cost to society is immeasurable. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Recently, Santa Clara District Attorney Jeff Rosen invited me to detail for his staff the causes of Puckett’s wrongful conviction. I showed Rosen’s attorneys how suppressed evidence, faulty identification, perjury, secret deals and faulty medical testimony caused the conviction of an innocent man. Such an analysis should be business as usual for every prosecutor’s office. And especially for the office that caused the wrong.

I trust my airline and physician to analyze their errors and train their staff accordingly. It is past time for every elected prosecutor and attorney general to do the same. By publicly analyzing wrongful convictions, prosecutors can spare innocent lives, and we can all live in a more just and well-informed society.

Karyn Sinunu-Towery is a retired prosecutor writing on behalf of the Silicon Valley Ethics Roundtable.

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