Alan Gell was acquitted on retrial because two North Carolina prosecutors failed to present exonerative evidence at his first trial. Such misconduct – while confined to a small minority of prosecutors and police – is increasingly drawing the attention of the news media and courts across the country. Political concerns, under funding, and excessive caseloads paired with the pressures of our adversarial system of justice, influence some prosecutors and law enforcement to focus on convictions rather than justice. Tunnel Vision in investigations and prosecutions can mean that evidence is not thoroughly assessed before charges are brought, that cases are prematurely narrowed to single suspects, and that facts pointing to innocence or inconsistency with guilt may be intentionally or unintentionally ignored. Once mistakes are made, getting some prosecutors to recognize the possibility of a wrongful conviction can be difficult. In Darryl Hunt’s case, prosecutors balked at releasing him even after DNA testing excluded him as the perpetrator, costing him nine years in prison in addition to the nine he had already served.
Open file discovery laws provide for the sharing of evidence, including police reports and witness statements, between prosecution and defense before trial. In addition, training for prosecutors, law enforcement, and defense attorneys regarding the possibility of wrongful convictions can highlight the need for cooperation in resolving questionable cases and ensuring that justice is quickly served for the innocent and for the true perpetrator. You can read North Carolina’s Discovery Law here.