In wake of Queens wrongful convictions, advocates renew push for prosecutorial conduct watchdog

 

In wake of Queens wrongful convictions, advocates renew push for prosecutorial conduct watchdog


From left, Rohan Bolt, George Bell and Gary Johnson walk free from prison after their wrongful convictions were overturned March 5. Photo by Klaus Enrique

From left, Rohan Bolt, George Bell and Gary Johnson walk free from prison after their wrongful convictions were overturned March 5. Photo by Klaus Enrique

By David Brand

Three men walked free from prison last month after a Queens judge determined that prosecutors “deliberately” concealed key evidence pointing to other likely suspects in a 1996 double homicide.

The men, George Bell, Rohan Bolt and Gary Johnson, were locked up for nearly a quarter century because of the actions of two high-ranking Queens assistant district attorneys who hid the exculpatory material and, according to the judge, lied about it. But the pair of prosecutors are unlikely to face any official consequences.

Advocates, lawmakers and wrongfully convicted New Yorkers are calling on the state to change that by funding the Commission on Prosecutorial Conduct, a body created to review claims of abuse and issue formal sanctions, from a public reprimand to a recommendation for removal.

“There is no accountability and that’s why this commission is so important,” said defense attorney Tom Hoffman, who specializes in wrongful conviction cases, during a press conference March 25. “It will stop the catastrophe of these wrongful convictions.”

Bill Bastuk, the head of the wrongful conviction advocacy organization It Could Happen to You, said the state would need to allocate about $3.5 million to run three offices in different parts of New York. He said the cost pales in comparison to the price of lawsuits paid out to people after they are exonerated.

The commission is modeled off New York’s Commission on Judicial Conduct, which issues public rebukes after investigations into misbehavior by state judges. 

Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the prosecutorial watchdog into law in 2018, but a state court later ruled its power to punish unconstitutional. The District Attorneys Association of New York argued that the 11-member panel violated the separation of powers and gave lawmakers too much authority over local DA’s offices. The organization had fought the creation of the commission, saying that there were already mechanisms in place to punish prosecutors internally.

Despite the legal setback, some state lawmakers have revived the effort to fund and empower the commission to review misconduct claims and issue tiered warnings and recommendations instead of direct penalties. The consequences would begin with a private letter of caution, followed by public admonition, public censure, and, in the most egregious cases, a public recommendation for removal.

“We should not have a justice system where prosecutors can violate their responsibility to the public, send people to jail and get away with it,” said Brooklyn Assemblymember Nick Perry, who sponsored the bill to create the commission. “We need to set up a system of accountability for rogue prosecutors who continue to violate their oath of office.”

State Sen. Jamaal Bailey referenced the wrongful convictions of Bell, Bolt and Johnson to illustrate the need for the commission.

“An individual who knowingly did what they did, there should be some kind of consequence for that,” Bailey said. “We talk about consequences in the penal law all the time for actions committed. No matter who you are, if you’re not doing the right thing, you should be held accountable.”

Published at Mon, 29 Mar 2021 10:58:00 +0000

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