Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Pattern and Practice

When prosecutors don't follow lawful, legal proceedures when prosecuting alleged criminals, not only do you run the risk of convicting the innocent, but when nobody trusts your office to enforce the laws - there can never be any justice for the victims of crime.

Especially if you screw up a death penalty so bad you end up defending yourself in the presense of the Supreme Court of the United States of America.

John Holloway at Slate examines Connick vs. Thompson, which will be heard before the SCOTUS tomorrow.

In 1995, Esquire photographed him, for a piece on the death penalty, standing confidently in front of his desk with one of his favorite office decorations: a 12-inch-high, battery-powered (and operational) electric chair, complete with the mug shots of the five men he had personally prosecuted successfully in capital punishment cases. All five have subsequently been released or had their death sentences commuted to life due to procedural problems in their trials.

The plaintiff, the wrongfully convicted party, released after 18 years on death row and "acquitted in 35 minutes" once all the evidence and witnesses in the case were heard. Yes, he won his lawsuit. For an awful lot of money.

Now on defense, "prosecutors should have absolute immunity from suit—that there simply are no circumstances serious enough to allow private citizens to recover damages from the DA's office."

No circumstances serious enough. Because the state executing an innocent man isn't considered serious circumstances.



DADvocate said...

I'm with you on this one. Prosecutors should make every effort to ensure they're prosecuting the guilty, not just going for a conviction. And, it's been shown plenty of times that too many prosecutors don't care if they convict an innocent person.

patsbrother said...

Here are the questions the Supreme Court will be deciding. I have added parentheses for clarity.

"Issue: (1) Does imposing liability (for failing to train a prosecutor) on a district attorney’s office for a single Brady violation contravene rigorous culpability and causation standards? (2) Does imposing failure-to-train liability on a district attorney’s office for a single Brady violation undermine prosecutors’ absolute immunity?

"[SCOTUSBlog's] Plain English Issue: Can a prosecutor’s office be held liable for the illegal conduct of one of its prosecutors, on the theory that the office failed to adequately train its employees, when there has been only one violation resulting from that deficient training?"

Other questions to consider:

Should New Orleans pay?

Now, further questions, for the future:

Should New Orleans pay to litigate all such cases in the future?

If you take absolute immunity away, you open up the courts to all comers making these allegations, whether ultimately meritorious or not; and New Orleans prosecutes thousands of felony cases a year; should New Orleans indemnify and pay for the defense of all its prosecutors and former prosecutors against whom such allegations are made?

How many more prosecutors must one hire to enable them to cover their current caseloads in one court and defend themselves civilly in other courts? How will you hire any prosecutors if they can expect to be sued regularly and often?

The law applies equally, across the board: you can't just say: well, we'll let it happen in this case. Because then everyone else who wants to make such a claim can make his demand and must receive his day in court.

Cousin Pat from Georgia said...

As far as the case law is concerned, city government agencies and police departments are sued all the time. How is this different? I'm very uncomfortable with any government entity being above citizen petition for the redress of grievances.

patsbrother said...

Judges and prosecutors come ready-made with people who want to sue them, and prisoners have A LOT of time on their hands. From my experience, accused individuals both before trial and after a conviction routinely assert they are the victims of malicious prosecution and prosecutorial misconduct.

The following is from the Supreme Court case of Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409 (1976):

"The common-law immunity of a prosecutor is based upon the same considerations that underlie the common-law immunities of judges and grand jurors acting within the scope of their duties. These include concerns that harassment by unfounded litigation would cause a deflection of the prosecutor's energies from his public duties, and the possibility that he would shade his decisions instead of exercising the independence of judgment required by his public trust."

That opinion goes into many more specific concerns, and I encourage you to read it. I believe it is available on the Internet.

As discussed by the Court, there are concerns about such cases even after you've limited the field of potential claimants to those who obtained a reversal of their convictions in post-conviction proceedings. If you say that an overturned conviction will open up the prosecutor to being sued and possibly incurring a money judgment against him or her, the judge in the post-conviction proceeding might be less inclined to find in the defendant's favor and reverse the conviction.

There are certainly arguments both for and against absolute liability for prosecutor, judges, legislators, grand jurors and others. But I believe the detriment society would incur by taking absolute liabilty away is far greater than the benefit we would receive from doing so.

patsbrother said...

Point of information: the Supreme Court is not being asked to decide whether to remove absolute immunity from prosecutors. The question before them is far more specific than that, and I refer you back to my original comment on this thread. My other comments have been on the subject generally rather than the Connick case specifically, where it appears the office was the losing party who is appealing.

Cousin Pat from Georgia said...

More on this.

I understand that some government jobs need protection from frivolous litigation, but wrongly imprisoned folks must have an avenue to persue justice for themselves.