News & Politics

4 of America’s Most Abusive Prosecutors

There’s no shortage of bad prosecutors in America, but these four go above and beyond.

There’s no shortage of bad prosecutors in America. At the top of the law enforcement pyramid, there are federal prosecutors seeking to lock up pot growers for life (Montana) and those deporting of hundreds of immigrants every month (Texas), destroying lives as if they were disposing of traffic fines. But lower down the pyramid, where the country’s 17,000-plus state and local police departments dump cases on their desks, is where many criminal defense lawyers say the worst prosecutors are.

“I think the biggest injustices are at the state level,” said Miles Gerety, a public defender in Connecticut who recently retired after three decades. “The U.S. attorneys don’t try cases unless they are complete winners… If the feds don’t think they have a good case, they dump it on the states.”

A perfect example would be Florida State Attorney Angela Corey, who not only oversaw the failed prosecution of Trayvon Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, but also oversaw the prosecution of Marissa Alexander, an African-American woman who fired a warning shot at her abusive husband and was sentenced to 20 years under Florida’s sentencing guidelines. In both cases, Corey approved the charges to be filed—making it harder to convict a predatory Zimmerman and easier to convict a domestic abuse victim.

There’s no shortage of examples like this through the country. The deeper you look, the more you can turn up local and state examples of overzealous prosecutors bringing a battlefield mentality to their job, or botching prosecutions, or covering up for police brutality, or using their job as a stepping-stone for political office. What follows are a four examples that stand out, but they just scratch the surface.

1. Florida State Attorney Angela Corey

The Marissa Alexander conviction prompted celebrity lawyer and legal commentator Mark Geragos to tell CNN that Angela Corey was “a menace” who needed to be disbarred and removed from office. Rev. Jesse Jackson visited the 32-year-old mother after the sentence and told the local papers, correctly, “It’s not beyond her influence,” to have sought a different charge and jail term.” And that was before the Trayvon Martin verdict, where even the New York Times explained that Corey could have filed different charges against Zimmerman with lower legal hurdles to clear to obtain a conviction.

2. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott

Top Texas lawman Greg Abbott just announced he was running for governor. What stands out the most is not his recent conversion in the media to a centrist before seeking the higher office, or his long record picking legal fights to overturn federal voting rights laws, but one initative before the cameras were rolling. A decade ago, Abbott sent state troopers after elderly women of color who were registering voters. In the most outrageous example, the state troopers walked past known crack houses to spy in and then arrest one elderly woman—waiting until she was taking a bath. It was all part of an “voter fraud” effort, which in Texas, means stopping non-whites from voting.

3. Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes

Brooklyn, New York’s top prosecutor, has been in office for 23 years, the Village Voice recently noted in a long profile that detailed why a prosecutor who was once seen as “innovative” had to go. In recent years, Hynes has presided over an office filled with bad prosecutions, including scores of cases from one detective who fabricated evidence, sending innocent people to prison. In other instances, his deputies let innocent people languish in jail after witnesses recanted or others were charged with the same crime.

On the other hand, Hynes, who is elected, is known for ignoring evidence in politically sensitive cases, such as not prosecuting Orthodox Jews—a big voting block—for child abuse. “The D.A. consistently ignored red flags brought to its attention,” veteran criminal defense lawyer Mark Bederow told the Voice. Bederow should know: he’s a former prosecutor.     

4. Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley        

Alameda County, where Oakland is located, has been an epicenter of overwrought policing for years. Whether it was firing wooden bullets at protesters, breaking up the Occupy camp, or the killing of an unarmed man at a subway stop, local police have been known for their heavy-handed tactics. And police brass—and now the county prosecutor—has cleared one of the worst officers in a misconduct investigation. A half-dozen years ago, the officer mistook a 20-year-old man leaving a convenience store for a robbery suspect, leaving him shot twice in the back, handcuffed and bleeding to death on the street. District Attorney Nancy O’Malley’s April 17 letter to the local police chief said “the evidence does not justify criminal charges.” Unfortunately, her dismissal of deadly force by police is not an isolated incident. Last October, O’Malley reached the same conclusion in another instance where an Oakland cop killed a teen.

The Power of Prosecutors

These four examples augment other accounts and lists of prosecutorial misconduct and abuses of power. At the federal level, 97 percent of all charges were not even decided by a judge or jury, because few people have the resources to fight the feds. There, federal prosecutors decide the charges and punishments, with little to balance their power. Montana U.S. attorney’s recent crusade against medical marijuana, despite a statewide ballot measure legalizing its medical use, is a striking example. Cotter is seeking life terms for the state’s biggest growers and dispensary operators.

Lower down the criminal justice ladder, state and local police departments investigate crimes—or ignore them—and then present those cases to prosecutors whose job, at its most idealistic, is to obtain justice for crime victims. But along the way, it is often the case that overzealous police and prosecutors make mistakes and cover their tracks, delivering travesties, not justice.

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's retirement crisis, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).