Prosecutor Misconduct at the DOJ . . .

Federal judges have found 201 cases of DOJ proscecutors violating the law and/or ethics rules between 1998-2010.  USA Today’s foray into prosecutor misconduct reveals that “the abuses have put innocent people in prison, set guilty people free and cost tax payers millions of dollars in legal fees and sanctions.”

With help from legal experts and former prosecutors, USA TODAY spent six months examining federal prosecutors’ work, reviewing legal databases, department records and tens of thousands of pages of court filings. Although the true extent of misconduct by prosecutors will likely never be known, the assessment is the most complete yet of the scope and impact of those violations.

Although acknowledging that the instances of misconduct or negligence are not broadly representative of the federal prosecution community, the story paints a picture of increasingly faltering work from prosecutors who are either overworked, under-supervised, or willing to break the rules in order to win.

Records from the Justice Department’s internal ethics watchdogs show the agency has investigated a growing number of complaints by judges about misconduct they observed. In 2001, the department investigated 42 such complaints; last year, 61.

The department will not reveal how many of those prosecutors were punished because, it said, doing so would violate their privacy rights. USA TODAY, drawing on state bar records, identified only one federal prosecutor who was barred even temporarily from practicing law for misconduct during the past 12 years.

Antonino Lyons, a Florida businessman spent three years in jail after a prosecutor hid evidence during his trial.

The evidence that eventually set Lyons free came to light only because of one sentence buried in a 40-page draft of a probation officer’s sentencing report. Those drafts are dense and at times ignored, but this one offered a tantalizing clue: an account by one of Lyons’ accusers, a federal inmate, that differed from his testimony during the trial.

Mr. Lyons’s attorney, commented that “[i]f it wasn’t for that one sentence, he would be in prison right now, probably for the rest of his life . . . The scary part is it probably does happen every day and nobody ever figures it out.”

What is the Justice Department doing to address these instances of misconduct?

Attorney General Eric Holder declined to be interviewed; earlier this year, he told judges that officials “must take seriously each and every lapse, no matter the cause.” The head of the department’s criminal division, Lanny Breuer, said, “Obviously, even one example of real misconduct is too many. … If you’ve engaged in misconduct, the response of the department has to be swift and strong.”

In practice, however, the response — by the Justice Department and the state officials who oversee lawyers — has frequently been neither. Department records show that its internal investigations often take more than a year to complete, and usually find that prosecutors, at worst, made a mistake, even when judges who presided over the trials ruled that there was serious misconduct.

For more insights check out Main Justice, an independent news organization which covers all things related to the Justice Department, which picked up on the USA Today report.

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