Over the past week, I’ve been reading the San Jose Mercury News’ massive and much-recommended five-part series, “Tainted Trials, Stolen Justice.” Based on a three-year investigation, the report looks at 727 court cases in Santa Clara County over a five year period. In over a third of the cases, the paper found, trials were marred by questionable conduct that worked against the defendants—who, judging from the case studies, tended to be minorities and poor—and a number of cases led to wrongful convictions. Among the findings:
In nearly 100 cases, prosecutors engaged in questionable conduct, including withholding evidence, defying a judge’s orders or misleading juries. “Experts say individual prosecutors reflect the dominant culture in their office, and too often it’s all about winning rather than ethics and fairness.” Often district attorney offices are extremely slow—taking years and years—to discipline prosecutors who overstep their bounds. In about 100 cases, defense attorneys neglected to do even the most basic independent investigation—interviewing witnesses or gathering evidence—or to raise objections to questionable prosecution tactics. In some cases they didn’t even appear to know basic criminal law. Note that this applies to both public defenders, who are notorious for this sort of behavior, and private attorneys, who will often take cases for relatively low fees and make profits by avoiding a time-consuming trial. In over 160 cases, judges failed to oversee trials impartially—allowing improper evidence or improperly favoring the prosecution—and repeatedly failed to properly instruct juries. This may partly come from the fact that judges are elected, and no one wants to appear “soft on crime.” (This also means that judges tend to come from the ranks of prosecutors, and the relationship between the two groups is fairly cozy.) In more than 100 cases, the 6th District Court of Appeal upheld verdicts even while acknowledging trial errors, deeming them “harmless.” While that might have been true in some of the cases, judges devised questionable rationales to dismiss others.
It’s shocking stuff, even for those already cynical about the justice system. The 6th District Court, by the way, upholds 97 percent of all convictions yet publishes only 2 percent of its rulings, which is the lowest in the state, so a bit of transparency certainly seems in order here.
The Mercury News was “unable to determine” whether Santa Clara County was particularly dysfunctional or whether its problems mirrored those of justice systems elsewhere in the country. I’d note that Santa Clara, while relatively liberal in most things, is considered a “tough on crime” region, one of the six highest sentencing counties in California during the ’90s, with law enforcement agencies that practiced “broken windows” policing and invoked the “Three Strikes” law at extremely high rates. Interestingly, in the 1990s, San Francisco under the “ultraliberal” DA Terrence Hallinan saw its crime rate decrease much more rapidly than Santa Clara’s did. Go figure. At any rate, read the series, it’s a good one.