Prosecutorial Misconduct in California

By Possley, Maurice | Judicature, September/October 2010 | Go to article overview

Prosecutorial Misconduct in California


Possley, Maurice, Judicature


The Northern California Innocence Project (NCIP) has released a comprehensive analysis of publicly available cases of prosecutorial misconduct in California, reviewing more than 4,000 state and federal appellate rulings, as well as scores of media reports and trial court decisions, covering the period 1997 through 2009.

This study is the most in-depth statewide review of prosecutorial misconduct in the United States. NCIP's examination revealed 707 cases in which courts explicitly found that prosecutors committed misconduct. In about 3,000 of the 4,000 cases, the courts rejected the prosecutorial misconduct allegations, and in another 282, the courts did not decide whether prosecutors' actions were improper, finding that the trials were nonetheless fair. The study was authored by Kathleen (Cookie) Ridolfi, executive director of the NCIP, and Maurice Possley, a visiting research fellow at NCIP.

Identifying 707 cases in which prosecutorial misconduct was found - on average, about one case a week for 13 years - undoubtedly understates the total number of such cases. These 707 were just the cases identified in review of appellate cases and a handful of others found through media searches and other means.

In the vast majority - 548 of the 707 cases - courts found misconduct but nevertheless upheld the convictions, ruling that the misconduct was harmless. Only in 159 cases - about 20 percent - did the courts find that the misconduct was harmful; in these cases they either set aside the conviction or sentence, declared a mistrial, or barred evidence.

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