A DISCUSSION OF LAW AND JOURNALISM

The Guilty Prosecutor

By Halina Schiffman-Shilo

It was the 1960s in America. The nation was undergoing a deep, almost existential crisis, and change was in the air. LBJ took the helm after President Kennedy was assassinated and declared a “War on Poverty,” overhauling oppressive and racist civil rights, voting rights, and education laws. The Freedom Rides commanded national attention and challenged the Southern status quo, the Black Panthers were gaining traction (as was COINTELPRO, courtesy of the FBI), and race riots after Dr. King’s assassination almost burned Washington DC to the ground. Anti-Vietnam War protesters filled the nation’s college campuses, and John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” became their call to arms.

Onward we marched.

By the 1970s, Americans started demanding government accountability. We were shocked and angered by the Kent State shooting, in which four peaceful, Vietnam-protesting college students were murdered by the Ohio National Guard, and betrayed by President Nixon during the Watergate scandal. In New York City, the Knapp Commission was established to investigate charges of deep-seated corruption in the NYPD.  And corruption, it did find. Bribes, shake-downs, and cover-ups, corruption was endemic to the fabric of the New York City police force.

Yet, as the New York Times’ obituary of Detective David Durk, who, along with fellow Officer Frank Serpico, blew the whistle on the systemic corruption in the NYPD in the1960s, noted, while “dozens of officers were prosecuted…no senior police or city officials were charged”, even though the Commission found that higher-level officials did not act when they should have. (Read here for a scathing review of what the Knapp Commission failed to do).

Wait, senior city officials slow to respond to, or even refusing to investigate, allegations of corruption or abuse?

This sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

It’s nearing the end of 2013. Voting rights have withered  and women’s rights are being chipped away state by state. While some of the corruption issues that plagued the NYPD in the 1960s (and again in the 1990s) have been sorted out, there’s another sort of corruption occurring within the criminal justice system that continues to fly below the radar. And so far, no Detective Durk or Officer Serpico has emerged to blow the whistle.

Prosecutorial misconduct.

Sure, articles on prosecutorial misconduct pop up here and there, an occasional law review note will be on point, and the Innocence Project in California released a comprehensive report just a few years ago. But what happens to the prosecutors after publication of these articles? Mostly, we fear, nothing at all.

So LASIS is starting its own investigation, and we’re not sure yet what we’ll find. But we plan to heed the King in “Alice in Wonderland,” who said, “Begin at the beginning…and go on till you come to the end”.

Until the next post…

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