Prosecutors and other government lawyers who enforce our nation’s laws wield vast power and exercise tremendous discretion with little oversight or accountability. For example, more than 95 percent of criminal convictions are now obtained through plea bargaining instead of jury trials. As a result, citizen participation in our criminal justice system has effectively been eliminated and with it much of the oversight that the Constitution’s framers intended. Even when cases do go to trial, it is possible — and, some have argued, disturbingly common — for prosecutors to further tilt the playing field in their favor by failing to disclose potentially exculpatory evidence, influencing witnesses with threats or inducements, and manipulating juries with improper arguments. Unfortunately, when government lawyers do commit misconduct, it is extremely rare for them to be punished or indeed even publicly identified. Finally, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that prosecutors are absolutely immune from civil lawsuits, even for willful violations of people’s rights, such as deliberately prosecuting someone they know to be innocent and suborning perjury to obtain an unjust conviction.
As a result, two important questions arise: (1) Are the existing checks on prosecutorial misconduct strong enough to ensure fairness in criminal and regulatory proceedings; and (2) are Americans well-served by our current system of near-zero accountability for prosecutors and other government lawyers? Our panelists have written powerful and often deeply shocking books about their firsthand experiences with that system and the damage it does to the cause of justice.
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