Defense Says Case Threatens NY Prosecutor Accountability

Criminal defense lawyers groups and the Innocence Project challenge a ruling by a federal judge in Brooklyn that wrongfully convicted defendants can’t win suits against prosecutors by citing their supervision and training.

It is difficult for people convicted because of prosecutorial error to hold someone accountable for transgressions that sent them to prison. A federal appeals court in New York is considering a case that defense lawyers say could make challenges all but impossible, the New York Times reports. Under U.S. Supreme Court precedent, it is relatively easy to sue police officers who commit misconduct, but federal law provides prosecurors immunity from being sued if they make mistakes in the courtroom, even those that lead to wrongful convictions. The unjustly imprisoned in New York are barred from suing the state unless they can prove conclusively that they are innocent, not just the victims of an unfair trial.

A New York federal appeals court has upheld another way of holding prosecutors liable: suits against cities and counties alleging that a misstep was related to an administrative matter, like a hiring or a firing, or to an office-wide policy. A federal judge in Brooklyn ruled that the “supervision and training” of prosecutors were not administrative matters, but prosecutorial ones, so the city could not be held accountable. A coalition of defense lawyers argues that the ruling could stop people wronged by prosecutors from seeking any form of financial redress. The lawyers say it could cripple efforts to hold prosecutors responsible for ethical or legal violations. The ruling by judge Ann Donnelly, a former prosecutor, “threatens to eliminate (or, at the very least, substantially limit) municipal liability for prosecutorial misconduct,” says the Innocence Project and the National and New York State Associations of Criminal Defense Lawyers. The groups filed a brief backing Kareem Bellamy, who was found guilty of stabbing a man to death. After he spent 13 years in prison, a judge determined that someone else committed the murder and overturned the conviction.