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Holding Prosecutors Accountable

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Posted: August 31, 2011   12:00 AM

A recent Supreme Court decision begs the question of what, if anything, prosecutors can be held accountable for.



In 1985, John Thompson, a 22-year-old father of two, was wrongfully convicted of murder and sent to death row at Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana. While facing his seventh execution date, a private investigator hired by his appellate attorneys discovered scientific evidence of Thompson’s innocence that had been concealed for 15 years by the New Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office.

Thompson was released and exonerated in 2003 after 18 years in prison, 14 of them isolated on death row. The state of Louisiana gave him $10 and a bus ticket upon his release. He sued the District Attorney’s Office. A jury awarded him $14 million, one for each year on death row. When Louisiana appealed, the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court. This spring, Justice Clarence Thomas issued the majority 5-4 decision in Connick v. Thompson that the prosecutor’s office could not be held liable.

The controversial and divided decision leaves Thompson with no choice but to get on with his life, which, incredibly, he already has. He is the founder and director of Resurrection after Exoneration, an organization that provides transitional housing to exonerees in the New Orleans area. Thompson’s fortitude notwithstanding, his story has become a kind of cautionary tale of unchecked prosecutorial power. If prosecutors cannot be held accountable in this case, when can they be held accountable?

In an op-ed for The New York Times, Thompson writes, “I don’t care about the money. I just want to know why the prosecutors who hid evidence, sent me to prison for something I didn’t do and nearly had me killed are not in jail themselves. There were no ethics charges against them, no criminal charges, no one was fired and now, according to the Supreme Court, no one can be sued.”


Deliberate Indifference

The prosecutorial misconduct in Thompson’s case was no anomaly. According to a report by the Innocence Project of New Orleans, District Attorney Harry F. Connick’s office withheld evidence favorable to the defense in at least nine death row cases. Four death row convictions were overturned because of the misconduct.

In spite of this legacy, the Supreme Court ruled that the violation in the Thompson case was “a single incident,” and that no pattern of misconduct could be established. The majority opinion acknowledges the four other overturned convictions but argues that they don’t count because different types of evidence were withheld in those cases. In her dissent, Justice Ginsburg writes, “the conceded, long-concealed prosecutorial transgressions were neither isolated nor atypical.” She cites ten items of evidence that were withheld from Thompson’s defense, including police reports, audiotapes and blood evidence that would have seriously undermined Thompson’s conviction.

Such violations have led to an incalculable number of wrongful convictions. Because of the often covert nature of prosecutorial misconduct, it is impossible to estimate how many innocent people have been affected. Furthermore, the vast majority of felony cases are resolved through plea bargaining and never go to trial. Prosecutors may have engaged in misconduct in those cases as well.

In at least 63 of the wrongful convictions later overturned through DNA testing, innocent defendants alleged prosecutorial misconduct in their appeals or civil trials. Examples of misconduct include elicting perjured testimony; destroying, concealing or fabricating evidence; making improper and inflammatory statements and more.

Recent studies of these and other cases have shown that prosecutors are rarely found at fault, and even when they are, they are very rarely disciplined for it. A USA Today investigation found that only one federal prosecutor has been disbarred, even temporarily, for misconduct in the past 12 years despite 201 documented cases of violated laws or ethics rules. The federal prosecutor in that one case was suspended from practicing law for just one year. A study conducted by the Northern California Innocence Project supports these findings. In that study, over 700 California prosecutors engaged in misconduct from 1997 to 2009 and only seven of them
were disciplined.

In response to the misguided ruling in Connick v. Thompson, the Innocence Network sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, the Presidents of the National District Attorneys Association and the National Association of Attorneys General calling for solutions to the problem of prosecutorial misconduct. Nineteen wrongfully convicted victims of prosecutorial misconduct signed the letter: “Now that the wrongfully convicted have virtually no meaningful access to the courts to hold prosecutors liable for their misdeeds, we demand to know what you intend to do to put a check on the otherwise unchecked and enormous power that prosecutors wield over the justice system.”

The 19 exoneree signatories included five people who served time on death row. Kirk Bloodsworth, who spent two years on Maryland’s death row, remarked on the Thompson decision: “It’s sad for America that we allow court officers to inflict the most harmful of all errors upon us with glib and cavalier intent to only win. Justice in that event always loses.”

This article originally appeared in The Innocence Project in Print -- Summer 2011.
Luis Velez says:
Jun 04, 2015 03:39 PM

It's hard to believe in the land of liberty that this is hapening. Why don't these prosecutors have a sense of justice and want to prosecute the perpatrators of the crime rather than someone they can prosecute by withholding evidence. All prosecutors should be to divulge all evidence for it to be admissible during trial. They should also be held accountable for knowingly withholding evidence.
If laws don't require this or are not enforced it's time for the laws to change and offenders prosecuted. WHAT'S THE NEXT STEP TO BRING THIS ABOUT?

chuck says:
Oct 15, 2015 01:40 AM

judges prosecuters police should be incarcerated

chuck says:
Oct 15, 2015 02:03 AM

no one is above the law that includes the law the law must be punished for not obeying the law by the true oath keepers of the constitution of america

Vancd White says:
Jul 05, 2015 06:29 PM

I've expreienced deliberate malfeasance and conspiring acts of attorney(s) and judge(s) alike. In the state of Kansas I can't find anyone other than double speaking attorneys that speak chicanery sideways out of both sides of thier mouths. Have proof or four journal enterys falsified. I've been convicted as of January 15th of three out of eleven initial felonys. The victims of these trumped-up crimes have been shuffled around to fit thier prosecution. Ineffective assistance is the status-quo. The law is wrested at every turn. The system is thier interprize of extortion by racketeering. Extremely venal. If anyone could help, please contact me at 970-424-7210

VICTIM OF OFFICER INVOLVED DOMESTIC VIOLENCE says:
Jul 08, 2015 01:43 PM

WHERE THERE IS POLICE MISCONDUCT... THERE IS PROSECUTORIAL MISCONDUCT.

I WAS BADLY BEATEN BY THEN BOYFRIEND A MINNEAPOLIS COP. BRUISES AND SCRAPES WERE CLEARLY EVIDENT ALL OVER MY BODY. STAPLES WERE NEEDED FOR THE TRAUMA TO THE HEAD. AFTER UNLAWFULLY RESTRAINED, COP BF POUNDED MY WHOLE BODY INTO A CEMENT DRIVEWAY. THE RESPONDING OFFICERS IGNORED ME AS I SAT ALONE IN A HUGE POOL OF BLOOD. PROFESSIONAL COURTESY WAS GIVEN TO A FELLOW OFFICER DUE TO PROTECT A GUN PRIVILEGE. A JUDGE IN MY COUNTY GRANTED AN ORDER FOR PROTECTION - WHICH STATED THAT NOT ONLY WAS IT A DOMESTIC... IT WAS SO EXCESSIVE IT CONSTITUTED AN ASSAULT.
THAT JUDICIAL ORDER WAS IGNORED. AND THE POLICE CORRUPTION WAS AIDED AND ABETTED BY A CORRUPTION PROSECUTOR. WHO BLATANTLY IGNORED HIS LEGAL OBLIGATIONS TO A VICTIM OF VIOLENT CRIME UNDER STATE AND FEDERAL LAWS. ALL MY RIGHTS WERE CONCEALED AND ARE STILL OUTSTANDING. AND OF COURSE, THE OFFICER WAS NEVER CHARGED. THANKS TO A RAMSEY COUNTY PROSECUTOR!

Vicki Betts says:
Sep 21, 2015 10:31 PM

I am very sorry you had to experience this.

Mimi Crist says:
Aug 05, 2015 08:31 AM

Pueblo, Colorado is just as corrupt. We were military. Is this what our military are fighting for?

Monica McCasland says:
Nov 08, 2015 09:35 PM

Something has go t to chance in our nation. Reading thus it's actually the first time in my life,that I am not to proud to be a American.
We have more people in jail then any other country. It's because of the power they have. They are not for helping anyone,it's like they get points for every prisoner. Clearly what America is doing us not working. Why don't we chance it? We as American can seat back and say nothing,and it will be Guaranteed Not to get better. Are we can take action to stop them. This is one nation under God!! Not Prosecutors!! LOOKING FOR A PAT ON THE BACK

Concerned says:
Nov 20, 2015 10:06 AM

When a prosecutor knowingly holds back information that could prove a person innocent (let's say in a death penalty case) the prosecutor needs to be tried and sent to death row. I would be willing to bet this would slow the crooked worthless thugs down

TERRORFIED says:
Dec 17, 2015 08:42 PM

What I find INCREDULOUS is that:
- The constitution is binding on all, inclusive of judges and attorneys, binding all citizens culpable to the law.
- nowhere in the constitution does it positively state immunity for any citizen from the Constitution and the Law.
- this absolutely demonstrates that the intent of the drafters of the constitution is that no citizen is immune or has absolute impunity to commit unlawful acts or crimes and all are BOUND by the LAW.
- The Constitution SUPERSEDES Common Law, therefore a WRITTEN CONSTITUTION Judge CANNOT give immunity to anyone let alone to their brotherhood of Judges and Attorneys.
- Any protection for the office of Judge and Attorney is given to the position of the OFFICE, NOT THE PERSON. For the PERSON to be cloaked by the protections of office, they MUST conduct themselves in accordance to the rules of that office and the Law. If exculpatory evidence indicates that the person holding the title of that office performs conduct inconsistent with the binding Rules of that office and of the Laws they are not acting in the authority of that office and have by their learned and informed actions elected to divorce themselves from the protections of that office and are now culpable to both civil and criminal law.
- ANY PERSON who knowingly puts false evidence or withholds evidence before the court for the purpose of perverting the course of justice or is complicit in conspiring to pervert the course OR perverts the course of justice has committed a crime.
- The remedy for such crimes already exist, they just need to be applied.
- There is also lawful remedy for despot state and judiciary stated in the the Declaration of Independence.
- Evidence indicates that there are Cells and/or Syndicates of like minded people who use the ULTIMATE FORCE of the State to violently and unlawfully deprive citizens of life and liberty with the ultimate purpose to undermine political stability, Democracy and the Constitution. There is a word for that and it starts with 'T.......ts'(hint 911), to which many of our citizens have given their lives to protect people throughout the world from. Best we set things right in our own yard before it is too late. Make complaint to your political representatives and set the matter right.

Moe says:
Dec 17, 2015 10:38 PM

Y'all should read and look into the Jessica Morton case in Grants Pass OR. How us an Asst DA going to try to charge her a year later then offer a slap on the hand 225 fine and expunged record in one year. This is just wrong. And no I do not know her.

Brittany McCasland says:
Jan 23, 2016 06:59 PM

https://www.change.org/p/louisiana-governor-it-s-more-than-the-glove-that-doesn-t-fit-in-this-case?recruiter=426176722&utm_source=share_petition&utm_medium=copylink

Brittany McCasland says:
Jan 23, 2016 07:04 PM

Read the case on Jarret McCasland. This is the reason we need to stop the injustice in East Baton Rouge specifically. In order to get ahead in their careers, prosecutors & the DA are willing to take someone's life knowing they'll never be held accountable because of their position. I'll die trying to get justice & I cannot wait until one of them or their loved one falls victim to such because what goes around, comes around. My God doesn't sleep!!

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