By John O’Hara
The way our criminal justice system works is a prosecutor decides who is guilty and then figures out a way to prove it. We couch these ugly realities in benign terms like the people are “building a case.” Building a case means the prosecutor makes a deal to grant immunity to the person who is really guilty in exchange for testimony. The prosecutor’s grant of “immunity” is what creates career criminals.
After building their case that same prosecutor now enjoys the protection of “qualified-immunity” for misconduct in the courtroom. That includes keeping that deal a secret. If you’ve read this so far, you’ve realized that some people are above the law.
It’s a myth that the District Attorney will actually bring the bad guys to trial. The fact is they can’t. Over 98% of all criminal cases result in a plea bargain which is why New York State recently passed a law requiring the DA’s office to turn over all discovery material within 15 days of an accused’s arraignment. Seems academic that before one leaves the courthouse with a criminal record that they should know what evidence, if any, existed.
In a recent interview with the Eagle about this, acting DA John Ryan said that he disagreed with the law, but would “adhere to it”. (Queens DA Seeks $1.5 million to adhere to new discovery law, May 23, 2019). This is the root of the problems that have plagued the Queens Courthouse for decades. Ryan seems to believe complying with the law is an option. It’s not. If the District Attorney fails to comply with the legislatures new mandates then those guilty pleas will be reversed on appeal.
For the past two decades Queens County has been number one in reversals on appeal for prosecutorial misconduct. Of all New York State’s 62 counties, Queens is the worst with over 107 reversals due to this misconduct, with more than 25 of those cases resulting in the accused’s total exoneration. Those reversals are part of the 2 percent of cases that actually make it to trial, compared to 98 percent of guilty pleas that get buried in a plea bargain. So why do prosecutors commit misconduct and why do the trial Judges look the other way? Because the goal is to get 100 percent of the defendants to plead guilty, meaning if you don’t take the deal the system comes down on you like a ton of bricks.
In a civilized society our Courts are the places we settle our disputes. But our Judges have become traffic coordinators while the prosecutors conduct the auction. The prison industrial complex is America’s biggest problem, a problem we can solve. It starts with recognizing that plea bargaining has created a criminal justice system that has failed everyone.
The beauty of politics is that sometimes the people have a choice to elect someone who can change everything. Democratic candidate for District Attorney Tiffany Cabán has outlined the metrics of how all the problems outlined above can be changed on day one. Tiffany has articulated the solutions on her website, at candidate forums and at a breakfast I attended to hear her speak last February. The people of Queens are fortunate to be able to cast their vote on June 25th for a true reformer.
John O’Hara is a civil rights attorney and a supporter of candidate for Queens District Attorney candidate Tiffany Cabán.