The Texas Tribune analyzed 86 overturned convictions, finding that in nearly one quarter of those cases courts ruled that prosecutors made mistakes that often contributed to the wrong outcome. This multi-part series explores the causes and consequences of prosecutorial errors and whether reforms might prevent future wrongful convictions.
From the moment 4-year-old April Tucker died, Debbie Tucker Loveless and John Harvey Miller told police and prosecutors that she had been mauled by dogs. But in 1989, the couple was convicted of murdering her and sentenced to life in prison.
Four seemingly endless years later, in 1993, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned their convictions, after a state district judge ruled prosecutors had withheld critical evidence that vindicated the couple.
Between 1989 and 2011, at least 86 Texas defendants including Loveless and Miller had their convictions overturned, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. In an extensive analysis of court rulings, news reports and pardon statements, The Texas Tribune found that in nearly one-quarter of those cases -- 21 in total -- courts ruled that prosecutors made mistakes that in most instances contributed to the wrong outcome. The wrongfully convicted in those cases spent a combined total of more than 270 years in prison. (See an interactive presentation with details about all the cases.)
In the cases, judges found that prosecutors broke basic legal and ethical rules, suppressing important evidence and witness testimony and making improper arguments to jurors. Despite the courts' findings of some serious missteps, the State Bar of Texas reports very little public discipline of prosecutors in recent history.
The State Bar does not track discipline of prosecutors separately from other lawyers. But Linda Acevedo, the chief disciplinary counsel for the State Bar who has been at the agency since 1985, said she could recall three prosecutors who were publicly reprimanded. None of the reprimands were related to the 86 wrongful convictions.
"Right now, there is next to no oversight of what prosecutors do," said Jennifer Laurin, a professor who teaches criminal procedure at the University of Texas School of Law.
A deadly attack
Loveless was overwrought when Laura Ardis met her inside the Gatesville women's prison in 1993. Four years after she had been convicted of beating and stabbing to death her 4-year-old daughter, Loveless still grieved for the girl and remained adamant that she did not kill her.
Loveless told Laura Ardis and her husband, lawyer Robert Ardis, the same story that Loveless' husband had recounted from the Huntsville prison unit. A pack of frenzied dogs, they said, had attacked April Tucker, who was bleeding to death when the couple found her in the woods near their home.
Robert Ardis was appointed to represent the couple after their 1989 conviction. Laura Ardis, who was his legal assistant, was convinced of their innocence.
"John was a very sincere person, and he was very forthcoming," Laura Ardis said. "I may have been nave back then, but I did feel like that he was telling the truth."
But Hopkins County Assistant District Attorney Alwin "Al" Smith had convinced jurors that the couple cut April with a hunting knife and beat her with a curling iron. The jury sentenced the two to life in prison.
Soon after he began investigating the case, Robert Ardis discovered 38 photos that prosecutors had not copied for the couple's lawyers during trial. He tracked down doctors and animal experts who said the photos -- which showed bruises in the shape of paw prints and dog hair on April's body -- confirmed Loveless and Miller's version of what happened.
"This is not a case of child abuse unless you want to call it a case of animal abuse of a child," said Dr. Charles Petty, a former Dallas County medical examiner, who examined the photos.
In a 1993 finding, state district Judge Lanny Ramsay said the couple fell victim to Smith's decision to withhold critical information that made it impossible for defense lawyers to present an effective case. The prosecutor disputed the allegations, arguing he provided the couple's lawyers with access to the evidence. But the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned the convictions that same year.
Questions of immunity
High-profile cases have recently brought national attention to the issue of prosecutorial misconduct of the kind alleged in the Loveless-Miller case. In Louisiana, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a $14 million jury award for John Thompson, who spent 14 years on death row because prosecutors withheld evidence. The high court ruled that prosecutors were immune from civil liability for their errors.
In Texas, the case of Michael Morton has sent shockwaves through the criminal justice system. Morton spent nearly 25 years in prison for his wife's 1986 murder in Austin. DNA evidence led to Morton's exoneration last year, and to the arrest of the man who is now facing trial in the murder. During their investigation, Morton's lawyers say they discovered that the prosecutor did not disclose key evidence at trial that pointed to his innocence. This fall, an unprecedented legal inquest is set to determine whether the prosecutor-turned-state district Judge Ken Anderson will face criminal charges for his role in the wrongful conviction. Anderson says he did nothing wrong.
In the aftermath of those cases, lawmakers, defense lawyers and prosecutors in Texas are debating prosecutorial accountability and criminal justice reforms with an eye toward the 2013 legislative session.
Defense lawyers and reform advocates argue that attorneys for the state wield an immense amount of power that goes largely unchecked even in cases of egregious misconduct. The public, they say, is becoming increasingly leery of a justice system that safeguards the death penalty, yet doesn't hold accountable the prosecutors who argue for it. They say it is just as disconcerting for people to see a system that allows killers to go free while innocent Texans languish behind bars.
"It does shake the public's beli