In Law School, I had the honor of being instructed in the superb Georgetown Law Center Criminal Justice Clinic, by far the single best course of any kind I participated in at any level of my formal education. Our mentor in prosecutor ethics was Seymour Glanzer, the man who, as an Assistant U.S. Attorney, cut the deal with Nixon’s White House Counsel John Dean that cracked open the Watergate scandal.
Sy had one mantra he repeated to the clinic students often, trying the beat it into our heads forever: the prosecutor must be the center of justice and ethics for the criminal system. Defense attorneys have to defend the accused whether they are guilty or not, but prosecutors are charged with achieving justice, not convictions. “If you don’t have sufficient legal and reliable evidence to convict a defendant of a crime, or have any doubts about that client’s guilt, drop the case,” he told us.
His principles do not hold sway among many, perhaps even most prosecutors, to the shame of the criminal justice system. Too many see their duty as convicting as many accused as possible, putting the law-abiding public at ease by closing cases and filling prisons. Over-zealousness, sometimes to the extremes of withholding exculpatory evidence from defense attorneys while placing questionable eye-witnesses and unreliable experts on the stand under oath, is rampant in district attorney offices across the country.
The worst of the worst may have been Dallas. Vanessa Potkin, chief counsel of The Innocence Project at Cardozo Law School, argues that “no other county in the country beats Dallas. It’s a county that beats out most states in the country.”
It’s an indication of a system that needs reform, she says, with “staggering numbers of the innocent put in prison.” That is why the recent steps taken by new Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins are so important, and so necessary.
His office just announced plans to create an “open file” policy, which would eliminate the distinction between so-called “Brady material,” evidence that prosecutors are required by law to share with defense counsel, and other evidence in the prosecution’s possession. Under the new policy, the defense would get everything in the file, and not risk having a client convicted because key evidence was “inadvertently” not shared, or “lost,” or because the prosecutor decided that it wasn’t important.
Watkins has also reversed his predecessor’s practice of routinely opposing defense motions for DNA testing. The first time such testing was supported by the Dallas DA’s office under Watkins’ regime, it resulted in the exoneration of Andrew Gossett, 46, who was serving a 50-year sentence for a 1999 sexual assault.
Watkins apologized to the newly-freed Gossett face-to-face, and told him that his office would support his application for a pardon and monetary damages.
The American Bar Association’s Model Rule of Professional Conduct 3.8, “Special Responsibilities of the Prosecutor,” says…
The prosecutor in a criminal case shall:
(a) refrain from prosecuting a charge that the prosecutor knows is not supported by probable cause;
(b) make reasonable efforts to assure that the accused has been advised of the right to, and the procedure for obtaining, counsel and has been given reasonable opportunity to obtain counsel;
(c) not seek to obtain from an unrepresented accused a waiver of important pretrial rights, such as the right to a preliminary hearing;
(d) make timely disclosure to the defense of all evidence or information known to the prosecutor that tends to negate the guilt of the accused or mitigates the offense, and, in connection with sentencing, disclose to the defense and to the tribunal all unprivileged mitigating information known to the prosecutor, except when the prosecutor is relieved of this responsibility by a protective order of the tribunal;
(e) not subpoena a lawyer in a grand jury or other criminal proceeding to present evidence about a past or present client unless the prosecutor reasonably believes:
(1) the information sought is not protected from disclosure by any applicable privilege;
(2) the evidence sought is essential to the successful completion of an ongoing investigation or prosecution; and
(3) there is no other feasible alternative to obtain the information;
(f) except for statements that are necessary to inform the public of the nature and extent of the prosecutor’s action and that serve a legitimate law enforcement purpose, refrain from making extrajudicial comments that have a substantial likelihood of heightening public condemnation of the accused and exercise reasonable care to prevent investigators, law enforcement personnel, employees or other persons assisting or associated with the prosecutor in a criminal case from making an extrajudicial statement that the prosecutor would be prohibited from making under Rule 3.6 or this Rule.
(g) When a prosecutor knows of new, credible and material evidence creating a reasonable likelihood that a convicted defendant did not commit an offense of which the defendant was convicted, the prosecutor shall:
(1) promptly disclose that evidence to an appropriate court or authority, and
(2) if the conviction was obtained in the prosecutor’s jurisdiction,
(i) promptly disclose that evidence to the defendant unless a court authorizes delay, and
(ii) undertake further investigation, or make reasonable efforts to cause an investigation, to determine whether the defendant was convicted of an offense that the defendant did not commit.
(h) When a prosecutor knows of clear and convincing evidence establishing that a defendant in the prosecutor’s jurisdiction was convicted of an offense that the defendant did not commit, the prosecutor shall seek to remedy the conviction.
In commentary on its rule, the ABA states in part…
“A prosecutor has the responsibility of a minister of justice and not simply that of an advocate. This responsibility carries with it specific obligations to see that the defendant is accorded procedural justice, that guilt is decided upon the basis of sufficient evidence, and that special precautions are taken to prevent and to rectify the conviction of innocent persons.”
Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins understands.
The United States will be a more just nation when all prosecutors similarly embrace the values of my old teacher, and those that do not are required to find another line of work.
Source: Grits For Breakfast (This is a terrific blog, and I recommend it highly)