Unchecked Prosecutorial Misconduct, DCFS Blue Ribbon Commission Convenes, CA Prisons Chief Meeting with Hunger Strike AdvocatesAugust 2nd, 2013 by Taylor Walker
FAULTY SYSTEM PROTECTS PROSECUTORS FROM ACCOUNTABILITY, AND LEAVES DEFENDANTS VULNERABLE TO PROSECUTORIAL MALFEASANCE
Laws meant to protect prosecutors from civil liability, along with a “conviction culture”—in which winning cases leads to promotions, better pay, and bigger firms—have created the perfect environment for unchecked prosecutorial misconduct with little fear of consequences, legal or professional, writes the Huffington Post’s Radley Balko. The fact that there’s little or no consequence for misconduct can and does lead to innocent people sitting for years in jails, prisons, and on death row.
Balko has an important piece on the issue. It’s a particularly lengthy article, but well-worth the read. Here are some clips:
Some questions seem particularly prone to set John Thompson off. Here’s one he gets a lot: Have the prosecutors who sent him to death row ever apologized?
“Sorry? For what?” says Thompson. The 49-year-old is lean, almost skinny. He wears jeans, a T-shirt and running shoes and sports a thin mustache and soul patch, both stippled with gray. “You tell me that. Tell me what the hell would they be sorry for. They tried to kill me. To apologize would mean they’re admitting the system is broken.” His voice has been gradually increasing in volume. He’s nearly yelling now. “That everyone around them is broken. It’s the same motherfucking system that’s protecting them.”
The wrongly convicted often show remarkable grace and humility. It’s inspiring to see, if a little difficult to understand; even after years or decades in prison, exonerees are typically marked by an absence of bitterness.
Not Thompson, but you can hardly blame him. Even among outrageous false conviction stories, his tale is particularly brutal. He was wrongly convicted not once, but twice — separately — for a carjacking and a murder. He spent 18 years at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, 14 of them on death row. His death warrant was signed eight times. When his attorneys finally found the evidence that cleared him — evidence his prosecutors had known about for years — he was weeks away from execution.
But what most enrages Thompson — and what drives his activism today — is that in the end, there was no accountability. His case produced a surfeit of prosecutorial malfeasance, from incompetence, to poor training, to a culture of conviction that included both willfully ignoring evidence that could have led to his exoneration, to blatantly withholding it. Yet the only attorney ever disciplined in his case was a former prosecutor who eventually aided in Thompson’s defense.
“This isn’t about bad men, though they were most assuredly bad men,” Thompson says. “It’s about a system that is void of integrity. Mistakes can happen. But if you don’t do anything to stop them from happening again, you can’t keep calling them mistakes.”
Prosecutors and their advocates say complete and absolute immunity from civil liability is critical to the performance of their jobs. They argue that self-regulation and professional sanctions from state bar associations are sufficient to deter misconduct. Yet there’s little evidence that state bar associations are doing anything to police prosecutors, and numerous studies have shown that those who misbehave are rarely if ever professionally disciplined.
And in a culture where racking up convictions tends to win prosecutors promotions, elevation to higher office and high-paying gigs with white-shoe law firms, civil liberties activists and advocates for criminal justice reform worry there’s no countervailing force to hold overzealous prosecutors to their ethical obligations.
In the end, one of the most powerful positions in public service — a position that carries with it the authority not only to ruin lives, but in many cases the power to end them — is one of the positions most shielded from liability and accountability. And the freedom to push ahead free of consequences has created a zealous conviction culture.
Thompson was up against a prosecutorial climate that critics had long claimed valued convictions over all else, one that saw a death sentence as the profession’s brass ring. The New York Times reported in 2003 that prosecutors in Louisiana often threw parties after winning death sentences. They gave one another informal awards for murder convictions, including plaques with hypodermic needles bearing the names of the convicted. In Jefferson Parish, just outside of New Orleans, some wore neckties decorated with images of nooses or the Grim Reaper.
One of Thompson’s prosecutors, Assistant District Attorney James Williams, told the the Los Angeles Times in 2007, “There was no thrill for me unless there was a chance for the death penalty.”
Williams kept a replica electric chair on his desk. “It was hooked up to a battery, so you’d get a little jolt when you touched it,” recalls Michael Banks, one of Thompson’s attorneys. In 1995, Williams posed with this mini-execution chair in Esquire magazine. On the chair’s headboard, he had affixed the photos of the five men he had sent to death row, including Thompson. Of those five, two would later be exonerated and two more would have their sentences commuted.
BLUE RIBBON DCFS COMMISSION HOLDS FIRST MEETING
The LA County Board of Supervisors-established Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection held its first meeting Thursday and appointed former head of Department of Child and Family Services David Sanders as chairman of the Commission. The newly-formed group will have six months to address the deep-seated dysfunction within DCFS.
LA Daily News’ Christina Villacorte has the story. Here’s a clip:
“The focus is not to generate yet another report but to move forward with the business of reforms,” county Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas told the Commission on Child Protection. “We have a moral obligation, in my view, to stand up for the most vulnerable among us.”
The commission voted Thursday to elect David Sanders as chairman. Currently the executive vice president for systems improvement at Casey Family Services, the nation’s largest foundation for providing and improving foster care, Sanders previously served as director of DCFS and is the only head in recent years who left without being forced out.
The commission — 10 members appointed by the Board of Supervisors — has a six-month deadline to wade through hundreds of child-protection recommendations made over the decades to DCFS and other agencies and determine why many of those reforms have not been implemented.
CALIFORNIA PRISONER HUNGER STRIKE UPDATE: PRISON CHIEF MEETS WITH ADVOCATES FOR “DISCUSSION”
California Prisons Chief Jeffrey Beard will meet today, Friday, with advocates of prisoners who have now been on hunger strike for 26 days to discuss the advocates concerns.
KPCC’s Julie Small has the story. Here’s a clip:
“It’s getting to be a very critical time,” said Carol Strickman, an attorney on the mediation team for the hunger strike leaders.
Strickman said the group asked to meet with Corrections Secretary Jeff Beard this week, before inmates suffer further harm.
“We’re hoping that it means that the Secretary is recognizing the gravity of the situation,” Strickman said. “And [that he's] willing to have a conversation with part of our team to see if there’s a way we can come to some reasonable solution.”
But Corrections department spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman issued a statement describing the meeting as a “discussion” only: “Secretary Beard wants to ensure he hears the advocates’ concerns and that they understand the various changes that have been taken place in the Security Housing Units over the past two years.”