Tag Archives: Prosecutorial misconduct

Replacing Prosecutors Who Can’t Indict a Ham Sandwich

Replacing Prosecutors Who Can't Indict a Ham Sandwich
Prosecutors Who Can’t Indict a Ham Sandwich

Prosecutors can get a grand jury to indict a “ham sandwich” as the famous New York Chief Judge Sol Wachtler once said.[1] If that’s the case, why has it been so hard to get an indictment over police officers blatantly accused of wrongdoing lately? Well let me explain. It’s almost like a Doctor who can’t do his job without nurses. If the Doctor gets his nurses fired, chances are, going forward; nurses will not be overly helpful in making sure the Doctor can get his job done. Similarly, prosecutors have  reciprocal relationships with police officers in the jurisdictions they serve. If police feel a certain prosecutor is out to the get them there is the possibility of evidence being lost, warrants not being served correctly, and forgetting to show up and testify in court!  Given the recent inability of prosecutors to sway grand juries to indict police misconduct, many are left wondering what can be done to address this increasing problem. Let us discuss prosecutors who can’t seem to indict a ham sandwich and why.

The Facts

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, “U.S. attorneys prosecuted 162,000 federal cases in 2010, the most recent year for which we have data. Grand juries declined to return an indictment in 11 of them.”[2] I was no math major, but if my calculator serves me correctly, only .067 percent of indictments result in a “no true bill” which is where a grand jury fails to indict. Unfortunately, no specific national data exists for grand jury investigations on police officers, however there are numbers for specific districts. For example, “[i]n the 81 grand jury investigations of police shootings in Dallas between 2008 and 2012, only 1 decided to indict.”[3]

As it stands, the proportion of general population defendants actually charged with a crime versus law enforcement officers charged with a crime is at about 2 to 1.[4] Simply put, if you’re a police officer accused of a crime you have a 50% chance of not being charged for that crime compared to civilians.

Replacing Prosecutors Who Can't Indict a Ham Sandwich
Police are 50% less likely to be charged for a crime compared to civilians.

The Cato Institute’s report on National Police Misconduct shows that there were 4,861 unique reports of misconduct in 2010, including 127 fatalities associated with excessive force.[5] Further, a recent report issued by the Department of Justice on the Cleveland Police Department’s use of force shows that there is a consistent use of unreasonable force in the majority of its shootings. If police know that – statistically speaking – they are less likely to be held accountable for their action opposed to their civilian counterparts, nothing will curb this behavior outside of legislative intervention. Excessive force is the most prevalent and most consistent complaint against officers across the nation.

Replacing Prosecutors Who Can't Indict a Ham Sandwich
4,861 unique reports of misconduct in 2010, including 127 fatalities

What Can Be Done?

There is a general consensus among legal minds that the appointment of “special prosecutors” who work independently within the office of state attorney generals would be the most ideal option. “The special prosecutor’s responsibilities should be limited to the oversight, investigation and prosecution of police or public official misconduct, keeping them independent from other policing functions.”[6] Doing so would eliminate the “special bond” and working relationship prosecutors and police agencies currently share. Let’s face it, no one wants to see their colleagues go to prison , let alone be the one who sends them there for something that occurred during the course of their employment.

The use of special prosecutors is hardly new, however the appointment of one is typically decided on a case by case basis. By establishing an independent office solely responsible for police oversight, it removes the scenario of the police policing themselves. However, as with anything related to government there is always a concern for costs. As Joshua Deahl noted, the benefits far outweigh the costs. By establishing a specific office to investigate and prosecute police misconduct, it would save state governments the added cost of paying private legal fees. He noted, “[s]pecial prosecutors picked for a single investigation have little incentive to contain costs.”[7] Just as an example, taxpayers in Cook County, IL had to pick up a $1 million legal bill “when a high-profile lawyer was appointed to handle the prosecution of former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s nephew for his role in a bar fight that left a man dead.”[8]

Of course any changes would need to be implemented at the state level. State lawmakers take note; because there is already proposed legislation with bi-partisan support in Missouri aimed at requiring special prosecutors to head up all investigations involving officers and fatal shootings.[9] Though there is bi-partisan support, expect push-back from existing elected prosecutors and prosecutor associations. Many will contend state constitutional separation of power requirements forbids special prosecutor offices at the executive level. However, any notion that this hasn’t been done before is hogwash. The precedence of special prosecutors stems all the way up to the U.S Justice department down to state and local governments. This can be done, or at least the conversation can be started. My suggestion is that those who share the concerns of prosecutorial bias also reach out to their legislators and demand action at the state level.

Replacing Prosecutors Who Can't Indict a Ham Sandwich
Replacing Prosecutors Who Can’t Indict a Ham Sandwich


We can eliminate inner-office bias by simply removing the responsibility of garnering indictments from existing prosecutors who consistently work with police agencies facing charges. I completely understand the rock and hard place scenario these prosecutors are faced with. However, given the fact that so many citizens are losing their lives at the hands of police officers with little or no recourse, there must be ramifications for over-zealous officers to be aware of. The focus should be on replacing prosecutors who can’t indict a ham sandwich by appointing an independent agency responsible for greater police oversight.  Please share  and give feedback on ways to curb jurisdictional bias.


[1] Sol Wachtler: The judge who coined “indict a ham sandwich” was himself indicted, , http://www.slate.com/blogs/lexicon_valley/2014/11/25/sol_wachtler_the_judge_who_coined_indict_a_ham_sandwich_was_himself_indicted.html (last visited Dec 5, 2014).

[2] It’s Incredibly Rare For A Grand Jury To Do What Ferguson’s Just Did | FiveThirtyEight, , http://fivethirtyeight.com/datalab/ferguson-michael-brown-indictment-darren-wilson/ (last visited Dec 5, 2014).

[3] judicial branch – What is the percent of Police Officers that are indicted by a Grand Jury? – Politics Stack Exchange, , http://politics.stackexchange.com/questions/6471/what-is-the-percent-of-police-officers-that-are-indicted-by-a-grand-jury (last visited Dec 5, 2014).

[4] Id.

[5] Police Killings Call for New Kind of Prosecutor – Bloomberg View, , http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2014-12-04/police-killings-call-for-new-kind-of-prosecutor (last visited Dec 5, 2014).

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] MO Rep, Sen want special prosecutors in all police shootings, , http://www.missourinet.com/2014/10/13/two-mo-lawmakers-want-special-prosecutors-in-all-officer-involved-shootings/ (last visited Dec 5, 2014).

Attorney Fees, First Step in Preventing Prosecutorial Misconduct

Awarding attorney fees for criminal acquittals would be a first step in preventing prosecutorial misconduct. For instance, in a the State of Washington, there exists little known statutory and case law stipulating that if a person is unsuccessfully prosecuted by the state, where a claim of self-defense is asserted, the state must reimburse the defendant for reasonable cost incurred.

Specially, the Revised Code of Washington statute 9A.16.110 states that ; when a person charged with a crime listed in subsection (1) of this section is found not guilty by reason of self-defense, the state of Washington shall reimburse the defendant for all reasonable costs, including loss of time, legal fees incurred, and other expenses involved in his or her defense. RCW 9A.16.110 Furthermore, case law interpreting the statute held that “when a jury acquits a defendant and finds that the defendant acted in self-defense, the State must pay for post-acquittal fees and costs reasonably incurred in the trial or appellate courts.” STATE v. DUGAN, July 1999 96 Wn. App. 346

Attorney fees for prosecutorial misconduct

Given the abundance of wrongful convictions; based on new evidence, DNA testing, and even prosecutorial misconduct, Washington State’s obscure rules raise interesting questions on why this isn’t allowed in all general criminal cases. Well settled civil recourse allows a prevailing defendant in frivolous civil litigation the right to sue the opposing party for legal fees. Consequently, however, no such remedies exist in criminal cases. Generally, prosecutors enjoy free range with unlimited immunity when prosecuting criminal cases. So much so, only once in the history of the criminal justice system has a prosecutor ever been convicted of wrongful prosecution. Even there, convicted prosecutor Ken Anderson, who wrongfully prosecuted the case of Michael Morton by hiding exculpatory evidence, was only sentenced to 10 days in jail. Though in addition, he was required to relinquish his license to practice law, Anderson was 61 years old, well on his way to retirement. Hardly analogous to the punishment Mr. Morton received who served over 20 years in prison before being exonerated. With so little motive for deterrence, coupled with career aspirational goals of high prosecution rates, many prosecutors proceed with cases knowing full well they would have little chance of a jury conviction aware that 97 percent of federal cases and 94 percent of state cases end in plea bargains.


To be clear, prosecutorial misconduct is defined as “an illegal act or failing to act, on the part of a prosecutor, especially an attempt to sway the jury to wrongly convict a defendant or to impose a harsher than appropriate punishment.” Take Brooklyn, New York for example, where USA Today reported that in just six months of observation, seven people were exonerated after prosecutorial misconduct was discovered. The California Innocence Project reported that in wrongful conviction cases, “prosecutorial misconduct was a factor in from 36% to 42% of the convictions.” Since prosecutors have little or no fear of consequences, many continue to prosecute criminal cases at their own discretion, having only their conscious as a benchmark for integrity. However, there are steps we can take to remedy the seemingly “too big to fix” criminal justice system.



There needs to be some form of consequential repercussions for irresponsible prosecutors. Legislation is the only tool that can reign in rampant prosecutorial misconduct. First, a good start would be expanding cases where the state would be liable for attorney fees where a defendant is acquitted. Modeling legislation after Washington States self-defense laws, a number of jurisdictions can at the very least give innocent defendants one less reason to plea. Second, increasing the likelihood of criminal prosecution for prosecutorial misconduct would be a deterrent. As noted above, the 10-day sentence of convicted prosecutor Ken Anderson, certainly would not strike fear into the heart of an over-zealous prosecutor, however it would make him or her think twice.

In addition to statutory fee reimbursement and prosecutorial convictions, jurisdictions would be well served by establishing special conviction review units such as the one expanded in Brooklyn. “The practice of naming a special unit dates back to 2007 when Dallas County, Texas District Attorney Craig Watkins started his Conviction Integrity Unit. Since then, the unit has reviewed more than 1,000 cases and exonerated 33 people. Watkins said 90 percent of the exonerations his office has done involved witness misidentification using a photo lineup.” Even a 3 percent wrongful conviction rate is excessive. The government should always have a higher duty of care when potentially infringing upon a citizens liberty interests. Simply put, more needs to be done to address the community’s distrust of law enforcement and the ubiquitous sentiment that innocent people going to jail is a natural consequence of our flawed criminal justice system.


Dred Scott Case

In conclusion, more needs to be done to change the attitude of both law enforcement and the general public. If ten guilty people must go free to avoid the incarceration of just one innocent person, then so be it. This country was founded upon the substratum that its citizens shall enjoy freedom, liberty and justice for all. However, given the fact that so much prosecutorial misconduct errs against minorities it would seemingly appear the majority opinion in, Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857), stating that people of color “had no rights that the white man was bound to respect” may still ring true till this day.

Texas Prosecutor Finally Convicted for Wrongful Conviction

Texas Prosecutor Finally Convicted for Wrongful Conviction
Texas Prosecutor Finally Convicted for Wrongful Conviction


     For the first time in American history, a Texas Prosecutor Finally Convicted for Wrongful Conviction.Ken Anderson, former prosecutor, was criminally charged, convicted, and sentenced for his role in intentionally withholding exculpatory evidence from then Defendant, Michael Morton, who was charged with murder in 1986. Mr. Morton was subsequently sentenced to life in prison in 1987 and served over twenty-years before being released. Mr. Morton was eventually exonerated of all charges in 2011 after DNA evidence cleared him from the possibility of beating and killing his wife in 1986. Michael Morton was present at Mr. Anderson’s sentencing but refrained to comment.

Ken Anderson, 61, served as district attorney when he withheld evidence from Mr. Morton’s defense team. He eventually went on to serve as Judge in Williamson County Texas for over eleven (11) years before resigning this September in light of allegations.  Perhaps what’s most ironic is that Mr. Anderson’s plea agreement precludes Mr. Morton from pursuing any further civil actions against the former district attorney. As a result of Mr. Anderson’s conviction, he will be disbarred and must serve five-hundred (500) hours of community service. Additionally, Mr. Anderson will serve ten (10) days in the Williamson County Jail.

Mr. Anderson initially responded in 2011, while proclaiming his own innocence, offered a flagrantly hypocritical apology, stating that “it’s inconceivable that this happened.” For his role, Mr. Anderson plead No-Contest to the 1987 criminal contempt of court charge and voluntarily agreed to surrender his law license.

Mr. Anderson, though now a convicted criminal, got off extremely light! Ten-days in the County Jail hardly compares to the twenty-four years Mr. Morton served in prison. Moreover, 500 hours of community service pales in comparison to the lost memories, productivity, and opportunities that Mr. Morton missed out on. Mr. Anderson’s sentence isn’t even analogous to a slap on the wrist compared to what Mr. Morton endured. Though Mr. Anderson also lost his license to practice law, at 61 years old, it will hardly have as significant of an impact as portrayed. Yes, while a law license equates to a lawyers livelihood, and without it, our professional skills would be insignificant, at 61 years of age, Mr. Anderson was nearing retirement anyway.


     While I’m grateful, for the first time in history, a prosecutor has been prosecuted and convicted for his criminally negligent conduct, I certainly hope it won’t’ be the last. The Innocence Project  reports that since DNA evidence has been used, there have been over three-hundred elven (311) post-conviction DNA exoneration’s in the United States. Of those exonerated, eighteen (18) of which were sentenced to death, an additional sixteen (16) were sentenced for capital murder. The average prison stay for a wrongly convicted innocent person is nearly fourteen (14) years before exoneration. In Arizona alone, the AZ Justice Project reports there have been eleven (11) wrongful convictions overturned, and over forty-five (45) cases in court or under the supervision of a review team.

Though, Mr. Morton was white, race undoubtedly plays a factor in wrongful convictions. Of the 311 post-conviction DNA exoneration in the United States since 1989, 193 were Black. Simply put, 62% of all exonerated convictions were Black men, though Black men roughly comprise 40% of the US prison population and only 6% of the American population, according to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).  That said, more needs to be done! Hopefully, more will be the literal translation of an Independent Review being established in Williamson County to audit every case Mr. Anderson has ever prosecuted.

Given the grave statistics, absent any state statutory recourse, there should be federal legislation requiring prosecutorial audits wherever wrongful convictions are overturned. We cannot continue to rely on individual municipalities to simply “do the right thing.” There needs to be systematic checks and balances that are mechanically triggered wherever prosecutorial misconduct is found. Here, lies a perfect example and opportunity to do so! That said, at a minimum, I hope this serves as a shot across the bow to all over-zealous prosecutors blinded by the tunnel-vision their professional aspirations create.  I sincerely hope those who cut seemingly insignificant corners in pursuit of justice are put on notice by Mr. Anderson’s conviction.

Texas Prosecutor Finally Convicted for Wrongful Conviction