April 23, 2008

Under both federal and Louisiana state law, prosecutors are given wide ranging immunity for their actions. Louisiana in particular has been a domicile for some of the most troubling examples of blatant prosecutor misconduct. Up until now, there was little recourse for an aggrieved defendant. But all that might change in the coming weeks as the US Supreme Court considers the ramifications of a prosecutor who goes too far.

The Supreme Court has ruled in the past that “absolute immunity” shields prosecutors from being sued by persons who were wrongly convicted, even when there was exculpatory evidence kept from the accused that might have helped his or her case. But a California decision recently accepted for review by the Supreme Court puts the whole immunity issue back on the front burner.

Prosecutors, particularly Louisiana, want the nation’s highest court to block any suits from someone wrongly convicted because, they say, it will open the door to a floodwall of frivolous claims. And if you review the history of numerous questionable decisions by Louisiana prosecutors, it would be fair to say they have good reason to be concerned.

Perhaps the most blatant example of prosecutors abusing the public trust was in a 1996 New Orleans conviction of Dan Bright for first-degree murder. Both the FBI and the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office suppressed a statement from a confidential FBI informant identifying someone completely different as the trigger man.

Bright received the death penalty and stayed in jail for eight years following his appeals before he was finally released by the Louisiana Supreme Court. Before his release, he served his time in Angola State penitentiary on death row in a coffin-size cell for 23 hours each day. His recourse when finally free? Just a shoulder shrug and comments of “tough luck” from the judicial system.

About the only bright spot to come out of the Bright judicial fiasco was the fact that the foreman of the jury who voted to send him to the electric chair, Kathleen Norman, has joined as an active member of a New Orleans organization called the Innocence Project. Their purpose is to review cases were the conviction was questionable, particularly when DNA evidence is available, and assume the burden of representing such defendants on appeal. Kathleen was on my radio show last year, and gives compelling testimony of how it is so easy to agree with knee-jerk acceptance as to whatever a prosecutor might claim happened.

Another case of blatant prosecutorial misconduct surfaced following the conviction of a fellow named John Thompson. He was convicted by a New Orleans jury of murder and spent 14 years on death row. But his prosecutor had remorse, and on his deathbed, he admitted destroying evidence in the case that would have set Thompson free.

And in a new can of worms for New Orleans federal prosecutors, pleadings have been filed by a New Orleans lawyer that a federal judge has labeled “sensational,” involving the Edwin Edwards case. Allegations are being made that Congressman William Jefferson participated in a bribery scheme involving former federal prosecutor and ex-New Orleans District Attorney Eddie Jordan. These new charges of prosecutorial misconduct will no doubt be looked at closely by the Edwards legal team as the former Governor continues to serve his term in a federal prison.

In addition, a new study just made public sums up the nation’s view of Louisiana. The state has the nation’s second worst legal system, and Orleans Parish was ranked as one of the 10 least fair and reasonable court systems in the country, according to a report released this week by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

As you can imagine, prosecutors throughout Louisiana are up in arms over the possibility of losing their absolute immunity. But is accountability all that bad? We are talking here about numerous cases where there was exculpatory evidence that could have helped the accused, yet it was purposely hidden or destroyed by a prosecutor. This goes far beyond any frivolous lawsuit. It’s a case of the prosecutor not only failing to do his job, but also subverting any realistic effort to see that justice will prevail.

Look for the High Court to confect some limited immunity, but force prosecutors to focus more on the facts and the truth, rather than continue, as we have seen time and time in New Orleans, to operate in the “gotcha” mentality mode that causes justice, way too often to be denied.

“The function of the prosecutor under the federal Constitution is not to tack as many skins of victims as possible against the wall. His function is to vindicate the rights of the people as expressed in the laws and give those accused of crime a fair trial.” — William Orville Douglas quotes
.Peace and Justice.
Jim Brown


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