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Failures of the Prosecutor’s Duty to 'Do Justice' in Extraordinary and Ordinary Miscarriages of Justice

THE PROSECUTOR IN TRANSNATIONAL PERSPECTIVE, Erik Luna & Marianne Wade, eds., Oxford University Press, 2011

UNC Legal Studies Research Paper No. 1941843

15 Pages Posted: 11 Oct 2011  

Robert P. Mosteller

University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill - School of Law

Date Written: October 10, 2011

Abstract

This essay discusses both the highly publicized extraordinary miscarriages of justice and unfortunately the much too frequent ordinary variety. It begins with the Duke Lacrosse and Central Park Jogger cases, which were extraordinary. Sometimes in cases of both varieties outrageous ethical errors by prosecutors were at the core of the injustice, but more frequently the prosecution error was in quickly reaching an expected result relying on apparently persuasive but questionable sources of evidence. The cases often involve the use of informants who received substantial benefits for testimony that incriminates the defendant and scientific evidence that did not actually establish what it appeared to prove. Another type of scientific evidence - exonerating DNA evidence - typically rectified the error, apparently promising clear answers to questions of innocence. Unfortunately, such certainty is often missing in problematic cases. Indeed, scientific evidence may give us the false sense of an ability to determine clearly when errors have been made and divert attention from the often inherent impossibility of knowing whether justice has been done.

To be sure major ethical failures by prosecutors do occur, but the message of this essay is that they are not central to erroneous convictions. Instead, the more common and persistent problem lies in institutional weaknesses that give prosecutors a narrow focus to their task as it relates to the innocent. The key relevant ethical command is that the prosecutor “do justice,” which is sometimes explicitly violated or callously ignored but is more commonly given insufficient attention. As a result, the essential problem common to these cases is not likely to be rectified by the creation or enforcement of ethical commands. Instead, critical reforms are likely to appear mundane and to be forward-looking rather than attention-grabbing and remedial. They entail institutional redesign and the implementation of standard practices, such as broad discovery, which may appear far removed from lofty pronouncements in ethical rules.

Suggested Citation

Mosteller, Robert P., Failures of the Prosecutor’s Duty to 'Do Justice' in Extraordinary and Ordinary Miscarriages of Justice (October 10, 2011). THE PROSECUTOR IN TRANSNATIONAL PERSPECTIVE, Erik Luna & Marianne Wade, eds., Oxford University Press, 2011; UNC Legal Studies Research Paper No. 1941843. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1941843

Robert P. Mosteller (Contact Author)

University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill - School of Law ( email )

Van Hecke-Wettach Hall, 160 Ridge Road
CB #3380
Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3380
United States

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