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Wrongfully Convicted Urge Action in Wake of Supreme Court Decision Expanding Immunity for Prosecutors

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Innocence Network Releases Letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and Presidents of the National District Attorneys Association and the National Association of Attorneys General Demands Accountability
 
CONTACT:  Paul Cates, 212-364-5346, 917-566-1294, pcates@innocenceproject.org
 
(New York, NY; March 29, 2011) —  After today’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Connick v.Thompson granting prosecutors even greater immunity for their misconduct, the Innocence Network released a letter signed by 19 innocent people who were wrongfully convicted in part because of the bad acts of prosecutors demanding greater accountability for prosecutorial misconduct.  The letter, which was addressed to Attorney General Eric Holder and the Presidents of the National District Attorneys Association and the National Associations of Attorneys, demands to know what systems they intend to put in place to ensure that innocent people don’t fall victim to overzealous prosecutors.   
 
In its 5-4 decision today, the Court ruled that Thompson did not meet the burden of proving that the New Orleans District Attorney’s office was deliberately indifferent in failing to turn over information pointing to Thompson’s innocence and the need for training and supervision to safeguard those rights.   The Court reasoned that because prosecutors are required to attend law school and/or pass the bar exam and are required to meet certain professional standards, “recurring constitutional violations are not the ‘obvious consequence’ of failing to provide prosecutors with formal inhouse training about how to obey the law.”
 
“Basically, what the Court is saying is that because they are lawyers, there was no reason for the District Attorney to believe that his prosecutors might need training to be sure they are fulfilling their constitutional obligations to disclose information that might be useful to their defense,” said Keith Findley, President of the Innocence Network. “This logic completely ignores the reality of what happened to John Thompson who was sentenced to death by prosecutors who repeatedly failed in their obligation to disclose exculpatory information.   No other profession is shielded from this complete lack of accountability.”
 
The dissent by Justice Ginsberg notes, “…the Brady violations in Thompson’s prosecutions were not singular and they were not aberrational.  They were just what one would expect given the attitude toward Brady pervasive in the District Attorney’s Office.  Thompson demonstrated that no fewer than five prosecutors – the four trial prosecutors and Riehlmann – disregarded his Brady rights.  He established that they kept from him, year upon year, evidence vital to his defense.  Their conduct, he showed with equal force, was a foreseeable consequence of lax training in, and absence of monitoring of, a legal requirement fundamental to a fair trial.”
 
“Prosecutors possess enormous power over all of our lives, yet today the Supreme Court took away one of the few remaining vehicles that we have for holding them accountable for their actions.  It is virtually impossible for the wrongfully convicted to meet the standard endorsed by the Court today,” said Kathleen Ridolfi of the Northern California Innocence Project.  “If prosecutors don’t quickly enact systems to stem misconduct, we are sure to see an increase in innocent people’s lives being destroyed by prosecutors who too often put securing convictions above their obligations to seek the truth.”
 
In recent Supreme Court cases dealing with the issue of prosecutorial misconduct, the National District Attorneys Association, the National Association of Assistant United States Attorney’s Attorney Generals and the Solicitor General have filed friend-of-the-court briefs arguing that there are already plenty of systems in place to cure the problems of misconduct, including internal disciplinary systems, state bar disciplinary systems, monitoring by the courts, and in extreme cases, criminal prosecution.
 
Yet, as the letter released today notes, prosecutors are rarely disciplined for their misdeeds.  The letter cites a recent landmark report by the Northern California Innocence Project, Preventable Error: A Report on Prosecutorial Misconduct in California 1997-2009, that found prosecutors were guilty of misconduct in California 707 times from 1997 to 2009, yet were disciplined only 7 times.  The letter also points to a USA Today investigation by Brad Heath and Kevin McCoy that was published on Sept. 23, 2010, that documented 201 instances where federal prosecutors violated laws or ethics rules since 1997, yet only one of those prosecutors was suspended from practicing law - and that was only for one year.  
 
“Misconduct was found in the cases of all the innocent people who signed onto this letter, yet none of the prosecutors involved were disciplined in any way,” said Barry Scheck, Co-Director of the Innocence Project. “How many lives are going to be destroyed before we realize that prosecutors are no different than any other professionals?  There are good ones and there are bad ones, and we need systems in place to stop the bad ones.”
 
“Our condolences go out to John Thompson and his family, who endured his nightmare with him.  He spent 18 years in prison — 14 on death row — because of the bad acts of prosecutors,” said Emily Maw, Executive Director of the Innocence Project of New Orleans.  “While nothing could bring back the years he lost to this misconduct, a jury and an appellate court felt he should at least be compensated for his wrong.  But the Supreme Court in a poorly reasoned decision that failed to recognize the reality of the New Orleans prosecutor’s office in 1984, has stripped him of that compensation today.”
 
A copy of the letter, which was also sent to the District Attorney offices in the counties where the signers were originally prosecuted, is available here.