33 Pages Posted: 21 Dec 2007
DNA-driven exonerations offer many lessons for police, for prosecutors, and for legislatures. Many scholars have focused on novel procedures to identify and remedy wrongful convictions after they occur. Scholars have also concluded that in our administrative criminal justice system we need prosecutors who are driven less by testosterone and more by a balanced search for the truth. In our view, the most enduring changes to the work of prosecutors will focus not on softening their adversarial perspective, but on enhancing and staying true to the traditional core of their work on the front end of the process - the charging decisions. In our view, accuracy and honesty in criminal systems face mortal danger when a prosecutor decides what charges to file based on his or her individual assessment of the moral worth of criminal defendants or victims. We believe that errors flourish when the prosecutors' sentencing recommendations aim above all to reach a deal with the defendant to avoid trial, rather than pricing the specific crime that the evidence might prove. To flesh out these assertions about prosecutors and outcomes we turn to a case study: two stories from Dallas, Texas. The first episode involves the work of the current District Attorney in Dallas to cooperate with the efforts of Innocence Projects as a remedy for an especially high rate of DNA exonerations from the office in recent years. We describe his efforts and explore the limits of after-the-fact remedies. The second episode from Dallas came to light in a remarkable set of articles from the Dallas Morning News. These reports indicate that prosecutors in Dallas go forward with murder cases in too many cases that deserve lesser charges or no criminal charges at all. At the same time, the office requests probation as the sentence for a murder conviction far more often than other jurisdictions in Texas. In short, the charges and sentences in murder cases in Dallas appear to be both too high and too low. This pattern of outcomes in homicide cases is dead wrong. We believe that unreliable charging is intimately related to the sort of injustice that drives the innocence movement. Put another way, the two episodes from Dallas are connected. The high level of DNA exonerations we find in Dallas grows out of a fixation on guilty pleas and an indifference to consistent and accurate application of the criminal code. We glimpse the same forces at work in the pattern of original charges and sentences in murder cases.
Keywords: Prosecution, Criminal Sentencing, Prosecutorial Discretion, Innocence Movement, Plea Bargaining
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