A group of law professors have published new complaints against 17 New York prosecutors, highlighting behavior that in many cases sent innocent people to prison, the latest salvo in a push for accountability that last month was given new life by a federal court.
One prosecutor was found by the Brooklyn district attorney’s office to have withheld key evidence in a trial, sending an innocent man to prison for more than 24 years. Another declined to tell a jury of the lenient plea deals that a key witness received in exchange for testifying, sending two men to prison for nearly 17 years. A third allowed a witness to lie; the defendant in that case spent almost six years in prison.
A number of the grievances recently filed by the law professors concern cases from the early 1990s when crime was high and there was political pressure to win convictions. The professors, who mostly teach at New York schools, aim to bring public attention to prosecutorial misconduct and spur the state disciplinary process.
In each of the complaints, either a judge or a district attorney’s office had previously recognized the wrongdoing. But there were no public records of discipline for any of the prosecutors, many of whom are still working in the city’s justice system. One has taught a course on legal ethics.
“It’s relatively easy to land on your feet and go somewhere else,” said Daniel Medwed, one of the group of six law professors, who along with posting the complaints online, submitted the grievances to the state committees responsible for disciplining lawyers. The grievances, which are reviewed by committees made up of lawyers and non-lawyers alike, can lead to public admonition, suspension and even disbarment. But experts say that rarely happens, and complaints often remain private.
“Most prosecutors don’t get sanctioned and most lawyers don’t get sanctioned,” said Bruce Green, who directs a center for legal ethics at Fordham University. Mr. Green is not among the law professors who filed the complaints.
It was not a given that the professors could post their complaints publicly. After filing a first round of grievances last year, they were warned by the city’s top lawyer, James Johnson, that publicizing the files was a breach of the state law that keeps attorney’s disciplinary records confidential.
The law professors, working in partnership with Civil Rights Corps, a nonprofit that fights for criminal justice reform, filed suit against Mr. Johnson’s successor, Georgia Pestana, as well as the Queens district attorney and several grievance committee officials. In June, a federal judge, Victor Marrero, ruled in their favor, saying that the First Amendment prohibited the state from blocking the professors’ actions. Some parts of the decision are under appeal but in the meantime, the professors have posted a new round of complaints.
The complaints arrive at a time of uncertainty for the future of prosecution. While prosecutors looking to reform the criminal justice system have continued to win elections, elevated gun crime and shifting perceptions of crime overall have disrupted the momentum of the progressive prosecutor movement. Those crosswinds contributed to the high-profile recall of San Francisco’s district attorney, Chesa Boudin.
The law professors say that the current climate makes it all the more important to illuminate prosecutorial wrongdoing. Mr. Medwed, who teaches at Northeastern University in Massachusetts, cited Mr. Boudin’s recall and the opposition faced by Los Angeles’s district attorney, George Gascon, also facing a recall effort. Mr. Medwed said “more conservative crime control elements are afoot,” that could result in renewed pressure on prosecutors to win convictions.
“That’s all the more reason for there to be greater transparency and greater accountability,” Mr. Medwed said.
One of the cases highlighted by the professors dates back to the winter of 1991, when a man named Andre Hatchett was arrested by the police a week after the discovery of a murdered woman.
Only one witness — Jerry Williams, who had been arrested in an unrelated burglary — identified Mr. Hatchett as the perpetrator, after having initially identified another man.
The prosecutor, Nicholas Fengos, did not alert Mr. Hatchett’s lawyer to the conflicting identifications. Mr. Fengos also did not take issue with an inconsistency between what Mr. Williams had told investigators — that he used crack cocaine on the day of the homicide — and what he told the jury, which was that he had never used the drug. Despite those and other improbabilities in Mr. Williams’s account of the murder, Mr. Fengos went forward with the prosecution and won a conviction.
Mr. Hatchett spent nearly 25 years in prison before the King’s County district attorney’s office, after reviewing his case, recommended that a court strike the conviction. Mr. Hatchett later won a wrongful conviction lawsuit for $12 million.
The professors are calling for Mr. Fengos, who works for the state prison system and remains a licensed attorney, to be suspended or disbarred. Mr. Fengos did not respond to voice messages seeking comment.
Asked why her group was focusing on cases that had been handled decades ago, often by zealous public servants, Cynthia Godsoe, a professor at Brooklyn Law School, said that prosecutors were not supposed to work zealously.
“Their mandate is to act in the interest of justice,” she said. “If people don’t want to do that, and be extra careful to play by the rules — that’s what they’re supposed to do — then they shouldn’t be prosecutors.”
The professors are hoping that public pressure will compel the grievance committees to take a closer look at their complaints. Laws shield prosecutors from civil pressure and the committees allow lawyers to mete out discipline to each other, in a system where there is little oversight.
Late last year, New York’s chief judge appointed three members to a newly created State Commission on Prosecutorial Conduct. But the commission has little independent disciplinary power; the law requires it to submit its findings to the grievance committees — at which point the committees would again be responsible for any consequences.
The commission has yet to take any public action. One of its appointees, Michael A. Simons, the dean of St. John’s University School of Law, did not respond to a request for comment. And so the professors, fresh from their lawsuit, still see a place for their work.
“We are trying to make systemic change, to make the grievance committee or more broadly the government, do their job,” Ms. Godsoe said. “We want to shed a spotlight: What are they actually doing? People have a right to know.”