Amid the continuing cavalcade of misconduct and corruption allegations from the Brooklyn district attorney’s office, the nonprofit investigative journalism outfit City Limits looks at similar problems in the Bronx.
The story jumps off with a recent case in which a man spent eight months at Rikers Island while awaiting trial on rape charges that were ultimately dismissed after prosecutors revealed they sat on information from the alleged victim that she had been paid to have sex with the accused.
Judge John Wilson permanently banned an assistant district attorney from his courtroom, calling her failure to turn over exculpatory evidence “egregious,” then adding that “it saddens me on one level and makes me sick on another.” Yet the prosecutor was never sanctioned by the DA’s office.
City Limits finds that the office has a history of inaction when it comes to misconduct.
The lack of ethics discipline is not news to Joel Rudin, an attorney who has been involved in “lawsuits to try to hold New York City responsible for the indifference of the Bronx District Attorney to Brady violations,” and won a 2001 appellate decision in Ramos v. New York City, which ended up yielding a $5 million settlement, at that time the largest amount ever paid by New York City in a wrongful conviction case.
In 1985, Alberto Ramos was falsely convicted of child rape in the Bronx and served seven brutal years in prison for the crime. In his case against the city, the court held that the city could be liable for misconduct and must provide personnel records showing whether prosecutors were disciplined for Brady violations.
Rudin compelled the Bronx DA’s Office to disclose personnel records for prosecutors involved in 72 Brady violation cases from 1975 through 1996. He then got access to records from 2001 through 2007 through two subsequent lawsuits, Poventud v. City of New York and Maldonado v. City of New York, involving former co-defendants who were falsely convicted for attempted murder and robbery due to concealment of Brady material. Oral depositions taken for those two cases — in which claims were later dropped against the DA’s office but not the NYPD — included that of current Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson, who has held that position since 1989.
Rudin wrote about the material in the Fordham Law Review in 2011, revealing that with nearly 400 prosecutors and hundreds of support staff, the Bronx DA’s Office had “no published code or rules of behavior for prosecutors, no schedule of potential sanctions for misbehavior or objective standards governing when such sanctions will be imposed, no written or formal procedure for investigating or disciplining prosecutors, and no procedure for keeping a record of prosecutors who have been cited for or are known to have engaged in improper behavior.” Rudin added: “Officials could identify just one prosecutor since 1975 who, according to the Office’s records, has been disciplined in any respect for misbehavior while prosecuting a criminal case.”
“I imagine you could get that at most corporations, so why not a district attorney’s office?” Rudin says now.
As these stories mount, it’s worthwhile to revisit Connick v. Thompson, the most recent U.S. Supreme Court decision to address prosecutor misconduct. Writing for the majority, Justice Clarence Thomas declined to expand the very narrow exceptions to prosecutor and municipal immunity from lawsuits for misconduct leading to wrongful convictions because, Thomas argued, professional sanctions from bar associations and DA offices were sufficient to keep prosecutors in line. There was plenty of evidence at the time that Thomas was wrong. What we’ve learned since then has only made him more wrong.