Prosecutorial Discretion and Post-Conviction Evidence of Innocence
52 Pages Posted: 24 Apr 2009 Last revised: 21 May 2009
Traditionally, discussions of prosecutorial discretion focus on charging and plea bargaining decisions. But on occasions when new evidence casts doubt on a convicted defendant’s guilt, questions of prosecutorial discretion take on comparatively greater importance. When there is an inadequate factual basis for criminal charges, a criminal trial will often (though not invariably) act as a corrective. In contrast, the legal process holds out little hope for wrongfully convicted defendants, especially in the absence of help from prosecutors. Commentators have written about psychological reasons why prosecutors might be unduly skeptical of post-conviction challenges, have identified institutional impediments to a fair response, and have proposed structural reform. But comparatively little attention has been given to the fundamental question of what we affirmatively expect prosecutors to do when new evidence comes their way suggesting that a convicted person may be innocent. This article explores that question. It maintains that even when not required to do so by a professional conduct rule, in exercising its discretion after obtaining a conviction, a prosecutor’s office should investigate significant new evidence that suggests that the convicted defendant was innocent. When the office then concludes that the defendant was probably innocent, it should take measures, whether by supporting an application for judicial relief or by supporting a pardon application, to correct the apparent mistake. This article also explores questions regarding what investigative steps must be taken and by whom, drawing on examples of current practices both in the United States and abroad.
Keywords: post-conviction evidence, innocence, criminal investigation
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