By Brad Heath and Kevin McCoy / USA TODAY
ORLANDO -- The jurors who helped put Nino Lyons in jail for three years had every reason to think that he was a drug trafficker, and, until July, no reason to doubt that justice had been done.
For more than a week in 2001, the jurors listened to one witness after another, almost all of them prison inmates, describe how Lyons had sold them packages of cocaine. One said that Lyons, who ran clothing shops and nightclubs around Orlando, even tried to hire him to kill two drug suppliers.
But the federal prosecutors handling the case did not let the jury hear all the facts.
Instead, the prosecutors covered up evidence that could have discredited many of Lyons' accusers. They never revealed that a convict who claimed to have purchased hundreds of pounds of cocaine from Lyons struggled even to identify his photograph. And they hid the fact that prosecutors had promised to let others out of prison early in exchange for their cooperation.
Federal prosecutors are supposed to seek justice, not merely score convictions. But a USA TODAY investigation found that prosecutors repeatedly have violated that duty in courtrooms across the nation. The abuses have put innocent people in prison, set guilty people free and cost taxpayers millions of dollars in legal fees and sanctions.
Judges have warned for decades that misconduct by prosecutors threatens the Constitution's promise of a fair trial. Congress in 1997 enacted a law aimed at ending such abuses.
Yet USA TODAY documented 201 criminal cases in the years that followed in which judges determined that Justice Department prosecutors -- the nation's most elite and powerful law enforcement officials -- themselves violated laws or ethics rules.
In case after case during that time, judges blasted prosecutors for "flagrant" or "outrageous" misconduct. They caught some prosecutors hiding evidence, found others lying to judges and juries, and said others had broken plea bargains.
Such abuses, intentional or not, doubtless infect no more than a small fraction of the tens of thousands of criminal cases filed in the nation's federal courts each year. But the transgressions USA TODAY identified were so serious that, in each case, judges threw out charges, overturned convictions or rebuked prosecutors for misconduct. And each has the potential to tarnish the reputation of the prosecutors who do their jobs honorably.
In July, U.S. District Judge Gregory Presnell did more than overturn Lyons' conviction: He declared that Lyons was innocent.
Neither the Justice Department nor the lead prosecutor in the Lyons case, Bruce Hinshelwood, would explain the events that cost Lyons his home, his businesses and nearly three years of freedom. The department investigated Hinshelwood but refused to say whether he was punished; records obtained by USA TODAY show that the agency regulating Florida lawyers ordered him to attend a one--day ethics workshop, scheduled for Friday.
Asked about Presnell's ruling exonerating Lyons, Hinshelwood said only, "It is of no concern to me."
The circumstances of Lyons' conviction did trouble Presnell, who oversaw his trial nine years ago. Presnell savaged the Justice Department in a written order for "a concerted campaign of prosecutorial abuse" by attorneys who, he wrote, covered up evidence and let felons lie to the jury.
Records from the Justice Department's internal ethics watchdogs show the agency has investigated a growing number of complaints by judges about misconduct they observed. In 2001, the department investigated 42 such complaints; last year, 61.
The department will not reveal how many of those prosecutors were punished because, it said, doing so would violate their privacy rights. USA TODAY, drawing on state bar records, identified only one federal prosecutor who was barred even temporarily from practicing law for misconduct during the past 12 years.
Even high--profile cases have been affected. Last year, a judge in Washington, D.C. — saying the department could not be trusted to investigate its own prosecutors — launched his own probe of the attorneys who handled the corruption trial of former Alaska senator Ted Stevens. After a jury found Stevens guilty, the department admitted that prosecutors had hidden evidence, then dropped the charges. (Stevens died in an August plane crash.)
Stevens' lawyers question how misconduct could have tainted such a closely watched case ---- and what that might mean for routine prosecutions. "It's a frightening thought and calls into question the generally accepted belief that our system of justice performs at a high level and yields just results," said Brendan Sullivan, Stevens' attorney.
Pattern of 'glaring misconduct'
Unlike local prosecutors, who often toil daily in crowded courts to untangle routine burglaries and homicides, Justice Department attorneys handle many of the nation's most complex and consequential crimes.
With help from legal experts and former prosecutors, USA TODAY spent six months examining federal prosecutors' work, reviewing legal databases, department records and tens of thousands of pages of court filings. Although the true extent of misconduct by prosecutors will likely never be known, the assessment is the most complete yet of the scope and impact of those violations.
USA TODAY found a pattern of "serious, glaring misconduct," said Pace University law professor Bennett Gershman, an expert on misconduct by prosecutors. "It's systemic now, and ... the system is not able to control this type of behavior. There is no accountability."
He and Alexander Bunin, the chief federal public defender in Albany, N.Y., called the newspaper's findings "the tip of the iceberg" because many more cases are tainted by misconduct than are found. In many cases, misconduct is exposed only because of vigilant scrutiny by defense attorneys and judges.
However frequently it happens, the consequences go to the heart of the justice system's promise of fairness:
¶ Innocent people are punished. In Arizona, a woman spent eight years in prison for her conviction in a 2000 bank robbery because the prosecution never told her that another woman —who matched her description almost exactly — had been charged with robbing banks in the area. In Washington, D.C., a court in 2005 threw out murder charges against two men who had spent two decades in prison for a murder they didn't commit, in part because prosecutors hid evidence that two others could have committed the crime.
They were among 47 cases USA TODAY documented in which defendants were either exonerated or set free after the violations surfaced.
Among the consequences of misconduct, wrongful convictions are the most serious, said former U.S. attorney general Dick Thornburgh. He said, "No civilized society should countenance such conduct or systems that failed to prevent it."
Even people who never spent a day in jail faced ruinous consequences: lost careers, lost savings and lost reputations. Last year, a federal appeals court wiped out Illinois businessman Charles Farinella's 2007 conviction for changing "best when purchased by" dates on bottles of salad dressing he sold to discount stores. The judges ruled that what he had done wasn't illegal and blasted lead prosecutor Juliet Sorensen for violations that robbed Farinella of a fair trial. Exoneration came too late to salvage his business or to help the 20 or so employees he had laid off.
"It's the United States government against one person," Farinella said in his first public comment on the case. "They beat you down because they are so powerful. They have trillions of dollars behind them. Even someone who's innocent doesn't have much of a chance."
¶ Guilty people go free or face less punishment. In Puerto Rico, a federal court blocked prosecutors from seeking the death penalty for a fatal robbery because they failed to turn over evidence; the defendant was sentenced to life in prison instead. In California, a double agent accused of sharing defense secrets with China was sentenced to probation instead of prison because prosecutors refused to let her lawyer talk to her FBI handler, a key witness. Dozens of other defendants — including drug dealers and bank robbers — left prison early because their trials were tainted.
¶ Taxpayers foot the bill. The Justice Department has paid nearly $5.3 million to reimburse the legal bills of defendants who were wrongly accused. It has spent far more to repeat trials for people whose convictions were thrown out because of misconduct, a process that can take years, although the full price tag is impossible to tally.
In one California case, for example, it took prosecutors four years and three trials to convict a man of tax fraud. Then an appeals court set aside his conviction because it said a prosecutor "sat silently as his witness lied."
The violations happened in almost every part of the nation, though USA TODAY found the most cases in federal courts in San Diego; Massachusetts; Washington, D.C.; and Puerto Rico. That pattern means misconduct is "not an isolated problem," said Laurie Levenson, a Loyola Law School professor and former federal prosecutor in Los Angeles.