Category Archives: Prosecutorial conduct (good and bad)

Friday’s Quick Clicks…

QUALIFIED Immunity for Prosecutors?

In the US, prosecutors have absolute immunity from civil suits brought by defendants whom they have wronged.  This has resulted in yet another manifestation of “absolute power corrupts absolutely,” and has encouraged prosecutors to break the rules in pursuit of convictions.

The Center for Prosecutor Integrity has been doing fundamental work in addressing the issue of prosecutorial accountability, and they have just published a new white paper titled Qualified Immunity: Striking the Balance for Prosecutor Accountability.  You can see that white paper here: Qualified-Immunity.

These excerpts from the paper – tracing the origins of absolute prosecutorial immunity in the US Supreme Court case of Imbler v. Pachtman:

“In 1976 the High Court handed down the long-awaited decision. Wary that prosecutors would be tempted to “shade” their prosecutorial decision-making under threat of a lawsuit, the Supreme Court held in Imbler v. Pachtman that prosecutors are unconditionally protected from civil liability as long as these actions were performed within the scope of their “advocative” duties.”

“Without a single dissenting vote, America’s highest court erected the doctrine of absolute prosecutorial immunity as the law of the land for prosecutors engaged in their advocative role.”

“By removing a key accountability mechanism and inducing an over-reliance on criminal proceedings and bar disciplinary actions, the Imbler decision unwittingly contributed to a culture of professional non-accountability. Without any meaningful prospect of enforcement, the ethical codes’ ability to accomplish the goals of punishment and deterrence has become, for all practical purposes, eviscerated.”

Tuesday’s Quick Clicks…

New Scholarship Spotlight: The Brady Colloquy

by Jason Kreag

Visiting Assistant Professor, University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law

Ensuring that prosecutors comply with their ethical and due process disclosure requirements has been a distinctly vexing problem for the criminal justice system, particularly in light of the frequency of wrongful convictions caused by prosecutorial misconduct. The problem stems from the shortcomings of the Brady doctrine and institutional forces that make it difficult to hold prosecutors accountable when they commit misconduct. In response to these challenges, commentators have offered numerous reforms to increase compliance with prosecutors’ disclosure requirements; however, many of these proposals are complex, would impose considerable burdens on the system, and/or would require new legislation or regulations. Instead, this Essay calls for a short Brady colloquy during which a judge would question the prosecutor on the record about her disclosure obligations. Such a colloquy would provide judges an additional tool to enforce Brady, nudge prosecutors to comply with their disclosure obligations, and make it easier to punish prosecutors who commit misconduct. Most importantly, judges could implement a Brady colloquy today without the need for additional legislation or ethical rules.

Continue reading….

The Innocent on Death Row – NY Times Editorial

We (Martin Yant) recently reported here on the WCB about the North Carolina exoneration of death row inmate Henry Lee McCollum.  McCollum’s exoneration has prompted a highly compelling editorial by the The NY Times editorial board.  That editorial with active links appears here.  It appears below without embedded links (bolding emphasis is mine):

The Innocent on Death Row, by THE (NY Times) EDITORIAL BOARD, September 3, 2014

The exoneration of two North Carolina men who spent 30 years in prison — one on death row — provides a textbook example of so much that is broken in the American justice system. And it is further evidence (as though more were needed) that the death penalty is irretrievably flawed as well as immoral.

In late September 1983, an 11-year-old girl named Sabrina Buie was found murdered in a soybean field in Robeson County. She had been raped, beaten with sticks and suffocated with her own underwear.

Within days, police got confessions from two local teenagers, Henry Lee McCollum, 19 at the time, and his half brother, Leon Brown, who was 15. Both were convicted and sentenced to death.

The crime was so horrific that it has echoed for decades through North Carolina politics and beyond. In 1994, after Justice Harry Blackmun of the Supreme Court announced that he opposed capital punishment in all circumstances, Justice Antonin Scalia cited the Buie murder as a case where it was clearly warranted. “How enviable a quiet death by lethal injection compared with that!” he wrote.

On Tuesday, a state judge ordered both men freed after multiple pieces of evidence, some of which had never been turned over to defense lawyers, proved that neither Mr. McCollum nor Mr. Brown was responsible for the crime. DNA taken from a cigarette found at the crime scene matched a different man, Roscoe Artis, who is already serving life in prison for a similar murder committed just weeks after Sabrina Buie’s killing.

Virtually everything about the arrests, confessions, trial and convictions of Mr. McCollum and Mr. Brown was polluted by official error and misconduct.

No physical evidence linked either man to the crime, so their false confessions, given under duress, were the heart of the case the prosecutors mounted against them. Both men’s confessions were handwritten by police after hours of intense questioning without a lawyer or parent present. Neither was recorded, and both men have maintained their innocence ever since.

Equally disturbing, Mr. Artis was a suspect from the start. Three days before the murder trial began, police requested that a fingerprint from the crime scene be tested for a match with Mr. Artis, who had a long history of sexual assaults against women. The test was never done, and prosecutors never revealed the request to the defense.

It was not until 2011 that the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, an independent state agency that had taken on the men’s case, discovered the old fingerprint request. The commission also found that multiple statements in the two confessions were inconsistent with each other and with the facts of the crime. In July, the commission finally got the full case file and matched the DNA to Mr. Artis.

None of these pieces mattered to the prosecution in 1984. The prosecutor on the case, Joe Freeman Britt, was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the “deadliest prosecutor” for the nearly 50 death sentences he won during his tenure. Almost all have since been overturned.

Mr. McCollum and Mr. Brown, who are now middle-aged, have a hard road ahead. In addition to the difficulties of adapting to life after three decades behind bars, both are intellectually disabled. (Since their conviction, the Supreme Court has banned the death penalty for both juveniles and those with intellectual disabilities.)

Cases of capital prosecutions based on flimsy evidence or marred by prosecutorial misconduct, not to mention racial bias, are distressingly common. Yet, even as death-penalty supporters insist that only guilty people are sent to their death, it is now clear that Justice Scalia was prepared 20 years ago to allow the execution of a man who, it turns out, was innocent.

How many more remain on death row today? Can the American people be assured that none will be killed by the state? For this reason alone, the death penalty must end.

A version of this editorial appears in print on September 4, 2014, on page A26 of the New York edition with the headline: The Innocent on Death Row.

A Case for Mercy and Discretion in Criminal Justice

“I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.”

– Abraham Lincoln

So-called tough-on-crime policies in the United States over several decades have resulted in unanticipated changes in the criminal justice system that most Americans probably do not fully realize. Mandatory sentencing, policies such as “three strikes,” and increasing use of plea bargaining as opposed to jury trials have prompted an explosion in the prison population and unprecedented prosecutorial authority. With all due respect to those prosecutors who serve us well, we now know that increased power and immunity from abuses have enabled prosecutorial misconduct, a significant contributor to wrongful convictions.

While the Innocence Project and other organizations work to correct miscarriages and prevent others, and new models such as conviction integrity units seek to address the failure of the appeal process to correct conviction errors, a recent case demonstrated the appropriate use of an intact but rarely used remedy: mercy and discretion by public officials.

These capacities once broadly utilized by judges in sentencing may be the most efficient way to cure injustices whether wrongful convictions or unfair sentencing. In a recent illustration, no one questioned the guilt of Francois Holloway. The New York Times reported (here) and (here) that he was charged in 1995 with three counts of carjacking and using a weapon during a violent crime (he did not carry a gun but his accomplice did).

When the government prosecutor offered Holloway a plea deal with a prison term of 11 years, he declined. Holloway’s lawyer assured him that he would win at trial.

His attorney was wrong. Continue reading

98-year-old woman seeks to overturn 1950 spying conviction

Hysteria often breeds wrongful convictions. The anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s McCarthy era undoubtedly led to some miscarriages of justice, and Miriam Moskowitz says her espionage conviction was one of them. Now 98, Moskowitz says she wants to clear her name while she still has time, and has asked a federal judge to throw out her 1950 conviction. You can read about the case here.