Can Prosecutors Be Held Responsible for Misconduct?

On Nov. 5, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Van de Kamp v. Goldstein, a case that could leave a lasting impact on the steps prosecutors take to avoid convicting the innocent.

The case focuses on whether chief prosecutors can be held accountable when their office-wide policies contribute to wrongful convictions. In 1980, Thomas Goldstein was convicted of a California murder he didn’t commit based in part on the testimony from a jailhouse informant. In exchange for the informant’s false testimony, prosecutors dropped one case against him and reduced the charges in another case. Because the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office had no system in place to share information about such deals, nobody knew that the informant had such a strong motive to lie – including the prosecutor who was handling Goldstein’s trial, the judge, the defense attorney and the jury. . Goldstein served 24 years before his release, and sought to sue the former Los Angeles District Attorney in civil court. Individual prosecutors already have absolute immunity from lawsuits seeking to hold them accountable for their trial-related “adversarial” conduct but not for “investigative” or “administrative” actions. In this case, the Supreme Court is considering whether to extend that absolute immunity to include office-wide systems and policies.

The Innocence Network’s friend-of-the-court brief in the Goldstein case argues that if the U.S. Supreme Court extends absolute immunity to cover prosecutors’ managerial and administrative functions, critical safeguards could be eroded — physical evidence could be destroyed, forensic analysis could become more secret and snitch testimony could become more common and less regulated.  

Read more about Van de Kamp v. Goldstein here
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And on November 10, the justices will hear oral arguments in Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, another case critical to the rights of defendants and the wrongfully convicted. In this case, Luis Melendez-Diaz was convicted of a drug crime in 2002 in Massachusetts. Forensic evidence was presented against him, but the analyst who conducted the tests did not testify. Melendez-Diaz argues that his constitutional rights were violated because he wasn’t allowed to confront a key witness at his trial.

Read more about Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, and download the Innocence Network’s brief in this case.