Pioneering Investigation By USA TODAY

Documents Prosecutorial Misconduct

Federal judges have repeatedly identified serious misconduct by U.S. Department of Justice prosecutors, according to a six-month investigation published Sept. 23 by USA TODAY. This outstanding, authoritative and vitally needed article helps break down a code of silence whereby watchdog mechanisms within the DOJ, the courts, Congress and the traditional news media fail speak out against rampant abuses by authorities.

The Justice Integrity Project was founded to address precisely this problem. So we're thrilled that one of the nation's largest and most influential newspapers featured the subject in a compelling piece authored by reporters Brad Heath and Kevin McCoy. Core findings:

Judges have warned for decades that misconduct by prosecutors threatens the Constitution's promise of a fair trial. Congress in 1997 enacted a law aimed at ending such abuses.

Yet USA TODAY documented 201 criminal cases in the years that followed in which judges determined that Justice Department prosecutors — the nation's most elite and powerful law enforcement officials — themselves violated laws or ethics rules.

In case after case during that time, judges blasted prosecutors for "flagrant" or "outrageous" misconduct. They caught some prosecutors hiding evidence, found others lying to judges and juries, and said others had broken plea bargains.

Such abuses, intentional or not, doubtless infect no more than a small fraction of the tens of thousands of criminal cases filed in the nation's federal courts each year. But the transgressions USA TODAY identified were so serious that, in each case, judges threw out charges, overturned convictions or rebuked prosecutors for misconduct. And each has the potential to tarnish the reputation of the prosecutors who do their jobs honorably.

The paper's multimedia documentation included:

VIDEO: Wrongfully jailed man: 'It can happen to you'
EXPLORE CASES: Investigate the misconduct cases we identified
JUSTICE DEPARTMENT: Prosecutors must brush up on duties
CLOSER LOOK: Prosecutor misconduct can take many forms
FULL COVERAGE: Federal prosecutors series

The newspaper's "Explore Cases" database above is especially important. This is because the database of local scandals helps system critics and timid news media alike focus on the vast harm to communities. USA TODAY's work complements the Justice Integrity Project's similar "Leading Cases" of prosecution misconduct around the nation. For example, the paper quotes former U.S. Attorney Gen. Dick Thornburgh as criticizing unfair prosecutions. Our treatment of one of his major recent defenses amplifies by documenting the experience of one of his clients, famed forensic medicine expert Dr. Cyril H. Wecht, longtime Allegheny County coroner in Pennsylvania. Federal prosecutors vindictively forced Wecht to spend some $8.6 million in legal bills to defend himself from essentially trivial federal felony charges, such as using a county fax machine 43 times for personal use totaling some $3.86 in extra electricity costs for the county during his 20 years as a part-time county coroner.

I placed a comment on the USA TODAY electronic comment section praising its story and noting two areas "ripe for followups":

1) For clarity, you necessarily focused primarily on situations where trial judges raised alarm. But many abuses occur where it's clear that judges with obvious financial or other conflicts in effect encourage prosecutorial misconduct, thereby ruining lives and wasting taxpayer dollars; and

2) Attorney Gen. Holder's refusal to answer your questions illustrates how shamelessly he and his predecessors from both parties reject much-needed outside oversight. Similarly, they ignore or side-step many Congressional oversight requests for information. Holder, doubtless knowing how contentious some Justice Department abuses in Alabama have proved to be, refused just yesterday to take any questions during a University of Alabama speech where he boasted of civil rights progress. This has to stop. Your article provided an important milestone on preserving the justice system against horrendous and unresolved Big Government abuse.

Our group intends to publish several major stories on these themes shortly. Among them are new twists in the continuing scandal whereby the Bush Justice Department framed former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman and businessman Richard Scrushy with the cooperation of heavily biased trial judge who has a vast personal and financial conflict of interest. Holder's Justice Department has participated in an ongoing cover-up.  This is so serious OpEd News publisher Rob Kall described Holder, right, 13 months ago in a piece entitled, "Worst Attorney General Ever."

We had hoped that the conference we organized about Justice Department misconduct in June 2009 at the National Press Club and broadcast nationally by C-SPAN would provided a wake-up call for the Obama administration.  Realistically, however, we've learned as have so many others that the Justice Department is intensely focused in whitewashing its internal scandals and that traditional media are necessary to any solution.

So, we urge advocates of good government everywhere to recognize USA TODAY's achievement, and augment the paper's findings in every way you can. We have ideas on specifics that we're happy to share and welcome hearing about your own.

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