Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Balko on Prosecutorial Accountability

Radley Balko has an excellent review of the innumerable examples of corrupt prosecutors not only not being punished, but being rewarded after withholding and even faking evidence, sending innocent people to prison and destroying their lives. He begins with examples like this one:

A couple of months ago, I wrote about Daniel Ford, a former prosecutor, now a Massachusetts Superior Court Judge, who may have withheld evidence and committed other misconduct in his prosecution of Bernard Baran for child molestation. Baran was cleared of the charges and released earlier this year after serving 26 years in prison. Ford has never been investigated, much less disciplined, for his role in putting Baran in prison.

And this one:

Then there’s Forrest Allgood, the Mississippi district attorney with a record that puts him in company with Carney. Allgood prosecuted both Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks, each convicted of raping and killing young girls in Mississippi in the early 1990s. Allgood relied on the testimony of disgraced bite mark specialist Michael West to secure those convictions. Even after DNA testing cleared Brewer in 2000, Allgood pointed to West’s match of bite marks on the victim’s body to Brewer as evidence that Brewer must have participated in the crime, even if he didn’t actually commit the rape. Brewer remained in prison an additional seven years. Brewer and Brooks were finally released in 2007 after a check of the state’s DNA database (which Allgood tried to prevent) showed a single man committed both rapes and murders.

Two other people Allgood has convicted of murder were later given new trials and acquitted. Tyler Edmonds, who was 15 at the time he was charged, was convicted based on a confession Edmonds says was coerced and by implausible forensic testimony from disgraced Mississippi medical examiner Steven Hayne. Allgood also convicted 18-year-old Sabrina Butler, who is mentally challenged, of killing her infant son. Butler was sentenced to death. The state supreme court also tossed out her conviction, which also relied in part on bad forensic evidence.

Allgood hasn’t (yet) been elected to the bench, but he continues to be reelected as district attorney.

And his conclusion is spot on:

Something is wrong here. It may well be true that the prosecutors noted above represent a tiny minority of those who serve or have served in the position. But whatever the number of “bad apples,” our criminal justice and political systems seem unconcerned about weeding them out. Instead, they’re often rewarded and promoted, despite long records of incompetence and misconduct. In fact, in the sense that misconduct can help win convictions, such prosecutors are often rewarded because of it. The Innocence Project estimates that prosecutorial misconduct factored into about a fourth of the wrongful convictions handled by the organization. Yet in none of those cases did a prosecutor face any serious sanction.

Be it through state bar association actions, judicial investigations and discipline, or legislation creating some other means of oversight, bad and incompetent prosecutors need to be held to account. When a prosecutor perpetrates misconduct or demonstrates incompetence that sends an innocent person to jail, it’s a regrettable but understandable product of the fact that that any large system is going to have bad actors. But when that prosecutor remains free to go on prosecuting other cases, with no repercussions, the very legitimacy of the criminal justice system is called into question.

Hear, hear.