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Opinion writer

I’m not sure which is more disturbing, that a rule like this is needed, or that to propose such a rule is considered controversial.

As four men sat in prison for a murder they didn’t commit, records show that state investigators sent proof of their innocence to a North Carolina prosecutor, but he never revealed it to the convicted men.

He didn’t have to. Nothing in North Carolina’s legal standards requires a prosecutor to turn over evidence of innocence after a conviction.

The four, along with a fifth who also was convicted, were eventually cleared through the work of a commission that investigates innocence — but not until they’d served years in prison, including several years when a judge says the prosecutor and sheriff “did nothing to follow up on” another man’s confession .  . . .

“If prosecutors have an ethical duty to avoid wrongful convictions, then they should have some sort of ethical duty to remedy wrongful convictions,” said attorney Brad Bannon, of the North Carolina Bar’s ethics committee.

He wants North Carolina to adopt a rule recommended by the American Bar Association, requiring prosecutors to come forward if they find “new, credible and material evidence” that an innocent person is serving time. Thirteen states have adopted the post-conviction rule. North Carolina isn’t among them.

The State Bar rejected the rule several years ago but recently appointed a committee to reconsider.

Ponder that. The rule doesn’t require prosecutors to look for evidence of innocence. It merely requires them to notify a court or defense attorneys if they find it. And not only are North Carolina’s prosecutors opposed to the idea, the state bar rejected it.

The only argument I’ve seen anyone try to make against such a rule is that it’s unnecessary, because prosecutors — being dutiful public servants and all — already do this. But even if that’s the case (and it clearly isn’t, see above), it really isn’t a convincing argument against having a rule. There’s little cost to having a rule. It’s existence doesn’t require any funding. It merely exists as a way to possibly punish the prosecutors who don’t follow it. If they’re all already following it, nothing changes.

But of course they aren’t. Which means that opposing the rule is essentially saying that prosecutors who fail to turn over credible evidence of innocence shouldn’t be punished. (They probably wouldn’t be, anyway.)

Meanwhile, that massive prosecutorial abuse scandal in California just took another incredibly cynical turn:

For the past year, the district attorney’s office in Orange County, Calif., has been battling the fallout from revelations of a decades-old scheme of planting secret informants near defendants’ jail cells.

Under this practice, prosecutors gathered information from informers in the county jail — information they were obligated to reveal to the defense but didn’t — and then lied about it in court. Once these unethical and unconstitutional practices became known, the DA’s office was forced to dismiss or reduce charges or re-try cases for more than a dozen people accused of murder and other serious crimes. In the process, the DA’s office and the county judiciary have ended up in a protracted legal sparring match.

Now two longtime prosecutors from that same office — Michael Murray and Larry Yellin — are running for Superior Court judgeships, aiming to take the bench alongside judges who have called them out for misconduct. Neither prosecutor has been formally sanctioned in the scandal. But both are supervisory-level district attorneys in an office that a judge recently ruled “habitually ignored the law over an extended period of time.” Both, by their own admission, have withheld evidence. And both are considered shoo-ins by the local press.

The system isn’t broken. It was meant to be this way.