Peekskill, NY – The most powerful players in the criminal justice system are prosecutors and they are accountable to no one. How to change that was the subject of a panel discussion, Thursday, January 25 in the Peekskill High School Auditorium. The Peekskill branch of the NAACP’s Criminal Justice Committee and Peekskill High School’s Black Culture Club sponsored the evening.
The 125 people in attendance were told the solution to such unbridled power is to establish a state commission that investigates misconduct on the part of a district attorney, similar to the judicial commission established in New York state 42-years-ago. The most common form of prosecutorial misconduct is withholding evidence from defense lawyers and improper closing arguments.
Members of the panel were in agreement for the need of a prosecutorial commission. “The criminal justice system is a loose, antiseptic nice phrase to describe the police, courts, defense lawyers, but it’s the prosecutors that run everything in that process,” said Dr. Bennett Gershman, Pace law professor and author of Prosecutorial Misconduct. I’ve had former students who work in district attorney’s office come to my classes to speak to current students and they all say the same thing, ‘I didn’t realize how much power I had over people.’”
“We are a voice for change said Bill Bastuk, founder of “It Could Happen To You” a nonprofit whose goal is to pass legislation that for the first time in state history would curb prosecutorial power. He is the author of current NY state legislation on prosecutorial oversight.
“If a patient dies on an operating table there is a mechanism in place to see what went wrong. There is a system of professional accountability and oversight to investigate potential misconduct for judges, sheriff’s real estate agents, chefs, hairdressers, banker, religious leaders, but not for prosecutors,” said Bastuk.
What the legislation on a NY State Commission on Prosecutorial Conduct seeks to establish is a uniform system of best practices for prosecutors and a uniform way to investigate a wrongful prosecution. There is a huge financial cost to taxpayers when a conviction is overturned. There have been 37 convictions overturned in the past eight years because of prosecutorial misconduct.
Jeffery Deskovic, another presenter on the panel, spoke about the 16 years he spent in jail for a murder he didn’t commit. Deskovic was 16 years old when Peekskill police arrested him. He won six and a half million dollars from Westchester County for a wrongful murder conviction. “In my case, the prosecutorial misconduct didn’t end at the trial level,” said Deskovic who told the audience that he’s been back to Peekskill High School to work with students in science classes to talk about DNA and how that helped overturn his conviction.
“But I’m here tonight for action, support, solidarity and to make sure that elected officials don’t chicken out,” said Deskovic. If legislators are convinced that people want the bill, they will vote for it. There is a need for a public campaign of sharing knowledge, writing postcards, phoning legislators, attending state budget hearings and asking why there is no money in the state budget allocated for a Prosecutorial Conduct Commission, said various panelists.
One way to move the issue forward in the eye of the public is for municipalities to enact legislation supporting the creation of a Commission on Prosecutorial Conduct. Peekskill Mayor Andre Rainey, who took office on January 1, told members of the panel that he was in support of legislation urging for the state to establish a Commission.
Panelist Kenneth Chamberlain, Jr. told the story about his father who was killed by the White Plains police on Nov. 19, 2011. I can’t say whether the failure to indict a police officer was a case of prosecutorial misconduct but the story wasn’t accurate from the beginning. The grand jury didn’t come back with criminally negligent homicide or reckless endangerment . I have to wonder what was presented, said Chamberlain.
Mayo Bartlett, who worked in the Westchester County district attorney’s office for 11 years and is now in private practice, took exception to the groups presentation of the prosecutor having the most power. “It’s the police officer, because that’s how you meet the prosecutor.” He spoke of how we are a society enamored of the uniform.
The panel was moderated by the Peekskill NAACP’s Criminal Justice Committee Chairman Samuel North. “We intended this evening to raise awareness and expand an ever-growing coalition of individuals and organizations to put pressure on the NYS Legislature to act on two pending pieces of legislation that would create a Prosecutorial Conduct Commission, similar to the State’s Judicial Conduct Commission.”
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