Prosecutorial Involvement in Exoneration

An Exploratory Analysis

  • Rachel Bowman Arizona State University
  • Jon Gould Arizona State University
Keywords: prosecutors; wrongful conviction; post-conviction review; exoneration; discretion

Abstract

The current literature on wrongful convictions documents the legal, psychological, and institutional barriers that prosecutors face in considering post-conviction claims of innocence. However, less is known about how the local court context may relate to prosecutors’ decisions to engage in wrongful conviction investigations. To address this gap, the present study explores how characteristics of the local court community are related to the likelihood of prosecutors assisting, actively opposing, or remaining uninvolved in post-conviction claims of innocence. Specifically, we examine prosecutorial involvement in exonerations from three levels: case-factors, organizational factors, and county-context factors. Using archival data on the exonerations of factually innocent individuals (N = 75), we find that case-related factors are the strongest predictors of prosecutors’ involvement in exonerations. Broadly, our findings suggest that prosecutors are more willing to revisit, assist and even investigate potentially wrongful convictions when the stakes are lower (e.g. the offense is less severe, there is no alleged official misconduct, the district attorney is well-established in the role, etc.). Given the wide range of prosecutorial responses to wrongful conviction claims, we emphasize the importance of specialized conviction review units to help routinize the practice of post-conviction review. Secondly, we suggest that district attorneys explicitly define professional performance metrics to include corrective measures such as assisting in the review of wrongful conviction claims. Finally, we encourage states to adopt formal legal regulations to guide prosecutorial behavior in response to post-conviction claims of innocence.

Published
2020-05-12