Columbia Journalism Investigations examined improper conduct by prosecutors during criminal trials and the impact of such conduct on defendants, their families and Ohio’s justice system. CJI reporters spent 18 months reading and analyzing hundreds of state appellate decisions in order to build a unique database that identifies confirmed cases of improper conduct by prosecutors across Ohio. We invite you to read this explainer on how we compiled our database. Our data analysis laid the foundation for a multi-platform series of national and local stories that shine a light on how Ohio prosecutors can violate legal and ethical standards meant to preserve a defendant’s constitutional right to a fair trial to win convictions.
To report on the improper conduct cases featured in our three stories, the team’s reporters spent more than a year reviewing hundreds of pages of court documents, police records, prosecutor personnel files and other public records obtained through records requests. Reporters interviewed more than 100 criminal justice experts, legal scholars, judges and defense attorneys from around the country, as well as former and current prosecutors in Ohio and defendants and family members whose cases were affected by the wrongdoing.
We sought to interview prosecutors involved in these improper conduct cases, as well as the county prosecutors’ offices where they worked. Over a period of several months, we called and emailed to formally request interviews. For those prosecutors who had left or retired, we called their current workplaces or residences to seek comment. Our reporters left polite voice messages identifying themselves and explaining our desire to speak with prosecutors for our stories, or relayed messages to professional colleagues or family members who may have answered a former prosecutor’s listed phone number. When people said they did not wish to comment, we stopped contacting them. In the interest of fairness and accuracy, our reporters sent multiple emails and made multiple phone calls to those who did not respond to our interview requests. To be clear, the only subjects we sought to explore with these current and former government officials were matters they had handled in the course of their employment as prosecutors.
Ultimately, to ensure that named prosecutors and county prosecutors’ offices were aware of our stories and had an opportunity to respond to the specific points in our stories about them, our reporters sent certified letters explaining our findings and asking questions. We did not want current or former public officials to be surprised about what might be said about them or their offices. Prosecutors and county prosecutors’ offices were given weeks to contact our reporters and offer any comment. Many did respond and their interviews are reflected in our stories.
For our third installment, exploring a controversial legal doctrine known as “harmless error,” our reporters emailed our findings and a list of written questions to the Hamilton County Prosecutor’s Office, the only county prosecutor’s office that did not respond to our interview requests. The purpose of this email was to ensure that the prosecutors in that office would not be surprised by what was reported in our article and to invite any corrections or comments the office was willing to provide. Given that all of our questions concerned the conduct of prosecutors performing their public duties, we were surprised that the Hamilton County Prosecutor’s Office did not respond to our inquiries, and chose instead to release a letter mischaracterizing our reporting and attacking journalists whose reporting was professional and intended to advance the public’s understanding of how this office performs its duties in the criminal justice system.