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Lawmakers considering prosecutor oversight in New York

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New York lawmakers on Wednesday began examining whether prosecutors statewide need an oversight commission where other lawyers, defendants and the public can bring complaints of misconduct.
 
At a legislative hearing, a law professor and ex-prosecutor who studied the issue and men who spent years in prison on wrongful convictions said egregious behavior by district attorneys and their assistants contributed to those convictions and apparently has gone unchecked.
 
"There really are, I've found, no consequences," said Pace Law School Professor Bennett Gershman. "I do think it's incontestable that prosecutors in New York do commit misconduct."
 
Oneida County District Attorney Scott McNamara said prosecutors already can face sanctions from trial judges, that deputy DA's can be punished by their bosses and complaints are made to the state's four judicial departments. Lifting some of the confidentiality around those cases might help dispel misconceptions that they don't have oversight, he said.
 
"This commission is going to have a chilling effect on prosecutors doing their job," McNamara said.
 
Assemblyman Nick Perry, a Bronx Democrat, and Sen. John DeFrancisco, a Syracuse Republican, have introduced legislation to establish a commission similar to the one that takes complaints about judges. They presided at Wednesday's hearing attended by a handful of legislators.
 
Robert Tembeckjian, administrator and counsel to the state's Commission on Judicial Conduct, said it has jurisdiction over some 3,300 judges and justices, and receives about 2,000 complaints a year. About 450 advance to an initial review or inquiry then about 150 become actual investigations. From those, the commission issues about 30 to 35 confidential letters to judges and 15 to 20 public decisions annually, which can range from reprimand to removal.
 
In almost 40 years, the commission has had 60 cases where judges left office for the most egregious conduct, Tembeckjian said. Commission staff explain to people who file complaints their dispositions.
 
"We absorb a lot of the public hostility toward the judiciary," Tembeckjian said.
 
Marvin Schecter said he and other defense lawyers have seen unethical behavior and in some cases illegal activity by prosecutors, and complaints filed with judicial authorities that were never heard of again. "The lack of accountability has contributed to the misuse of power," he said.