Unethical Prosecution, Incompetent Jury: Once Again, “Sorry” Isn’t Enough.

After Archie Williams (above) was released from a federal penitentiary  last week after serving 36 years  not only for a crime he didn’t commit, but  after a false conviction that would have been prevented by decisive exculpatory evidence that was available to the prosecution from the beginning. The district attorney for East Baton Rouge Parish, Hillar C. Moore III, said in court, “As a representative of the state, I apologize.”

I’m sure that makes Williams feel all warm inside. As we discussed here just this month in another case of wrongful arrest, trial and imprisonment, the kind of life-destroying mistakes that send citizens to prison for crimes they didn’t commit must involve accountability for those responsible beyond mere financial damages paid by the State.

This case is especially infuriating. It was known at the trial, and admitted by the prosecution, that  fingerprints found at the scene where a woman had been raped and stabbed in in Baton Rouge, La. belonged to someone other than the man standing trial for the crime.  Under basic prosecutorial ethics, Williams shouldn’t have been charged. The prints guaranteed reasonable doubt.  An ethical  prosecutor is not supposed to decide, “Well, maybe we can convince the jury to ignore those prints.” Prosecutors aren’t supposed to fool juries.  Ethical prosecution demanded that the State acknowledge doubt, no matter how much it wanted to clear the case, The victim of the attack was the wife of a wealthy and powerful man.

Instead, the prosecutor at the trial trivialized the significance of the then-unidentified fingerprints found at the scene.  “How many people come through your house?” Jeff Hollingsworth asked the jury, after suggesting that the prints could have belonged to  a plumber or a carpenter, “The air-conditioning man, people who clean your carpets, the little girl home from school.”

Then it was the duty of the police to determine who those people were, match the prints, and determine that they didn’t commit the crime. Without that due diligence, there is doubt as a matter of reason as well as ethics.

Technicians in a crime lab eventually ran the fingerprints  through a national database, and  within hours there was a match with a serial rapist. That happened last week, however, almost four decades after the prints should have been identified. When Williams  requested that the fingerprints be run against the national database in 1999, prosecutors opposed his request and  no statute required them to comply…just fairness and an interest in justice.

The fingerprints weren’t the only reason the jury should have acquitted Williams. Although the victim was certain that he was her attacker, several aspects of her description of the rapist didn’t match  Williams. His lawyer at the trial, Kathleen S. Richey, accurately told the jury that  the victim had described a  taller man with a scar on his shoulder blade.  Williams did not; he had a scar on his upper arm.

The jury found him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt anyway. He was 22 when police arrested him. Archie is Williams is 58 today.

It was dawning on criminologists by 1983 that eye witness testimony was less reliable than previously thought, and that identification could be negligently or intentionally be manipulated by police. Combined with the mysterious fingerprints, the shaky ID should have assured Williams’ acquittal. Juries, however, don’t know the law, don’t have experience evaluating evidence, and sometimes, as Reginald Rose pointed out in “Twelve Angry Men,” just want to get home, are misled by their biases, or just aren’t very bright.

I hesitate to call for some kind of sanctions or penalties when a jury botches its job like this; after all, the police screwed up, the prosecution was unethical, the judge let it all happen, and they were doing jobs that they had been trained to do. Nonetheless, it seems like some consequences of a bad verdict might focus jurors attention a bit more, to the benefit of justice. What those consequences might be, I have no idea.

I would support a law mandating the resignation and permanent bar from further prosecuting duties any prosecutor involved in sending an innocent man to prison, however.

It’s fascinating that such a case should come to public attention at the same time that activists, feminists and progressives are arguing that the presumption of innocence for men accused of sex crimes should be reduced. Archie Williams graphically shows where that position leads.

26 thoughts on “Unethical Prosecution, Incompetent Jury: Once Again, “Sorry” Isn’t Enough.

  1. I’m sure that makes Williams feel all warm inside.

    Yeah. Both he and the shades of his friends and family who have passed while he was inside.

    I hesitate to call for some kind of sanctions or penalties when a jury botches its job like this; after all, the police screwed up, the prosecution was unethical, the judge let it all happen, and they were doing jobs that they had been trained to do. Nonetheless, it seems like some consequences of a bad verdict might focus jurors attention a bit more, to the benefit of justice. What those consequences might be, I have no idea.

    No. A jury should never be liable for a finding resulting from bad information, unethical proprietorial behavior, and lame-brained judge supervision. At all.

    The professionals in this case are the failure point, not the lay persons. Asking a jury of ordinary citizens to unwind this mess, even if the theoretical possibility existed, isn’t ethical in my view.

    I would support a law mandating the resignation and permanent bar from further prosecuting duties any prosecutor involved in sending an innocent man to prison, however.

    I would support mandatory imprisonment for not less than five years any prosecutor willfully involved in a sham like this. Along with permanent disbarment. If we don’t require prosecutors to behave ethically and properly under thread of loss of freedom, they have proven that they will not. I know it’s harsh, but this is becoming all too common. Time to break some metaphorical heads.

    Why is it that we’d even think about sanctioning laypeople and letting a prosecutor off with just a firing? I can’t wrap my head around that.

    • I’ve considered a system where we train and pay for professional foremen/forepersons to make sure the other 11 jury members take their role seriously, and to educate the jurors about things like “reasonable doubt.” He or she would also have the power to eject members for cause.

      • I would support execution of tbe prosecutors involved., as well as the victim who lied.

        As an aside, why do not the families of these people take the law into their own hands? Is not vigilantism justified in these cases, where the very rule of law breaks down?

        Where is the Punisher? He, not Batman, is the comic book hero that we need.

      • That is not an unattractive thought. I think I would go for that.

        But I still think the consequences for prosecutors refusing to provide or consider exculpatory evidence should be dire enough that the behavior changes. Right now, there are no real motivations for prosecutors to act ethically other than bar ethics. Punishment for misbehavior is so rare as to be effectively nonexistant, and certainly ineffective

      • I like the idea of someone to educate jurors on what they will need to know and the limits of what they can do. However, it should not be a member of that jury, but a jury “mentor” trained and paid, who could be assigned out of a pool of mentors (covering a wide area or a number of courtrooms) to be available to a particular jury throughout the trial to answer or reiterate information that has nothing to do with the case per se. The questions he or she would deal with would be open to the judge (for approval?) and be a matter of public record – provably not part of the case. In fact, the more I think about it, and recall the three juries I have served on, at the very least, the more necessary a jury “primer” should be available with clear, concise definitions of basic vocabulary and procedure.

  2. The fingerprints weren’t the only reason the jury should have acquitted Williams. Although the victim was certain that he was her attacker, several aspects of her description of the rapist didn’t match Williams. His lawyer at the trial, Kathleen S. Richey, accurately told the jury that the victim had described a taller man with a scar on his shoulder blade. Williams did not; he had a scar on his upper arm.

    The jury found him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt anyway. He was 22 when police arrested him. Archie is Williams is 58 today.

    The jury has clearly failed. There was reasonable doubt, and they chose to convict.

    They should get the Admiral Ozzel treatment.

        • I agree the Ozzel is far too harsh. I think it is hard enough to get reasonably educated and alert jurors. Adding a risk for if they don’t really understand the proceedings and follow along when one set of lawyers plays their sympathies or fears better will not improve the issue at all.

          1) I think jury should not be attached to voting, as that disincentivizes voting. Non-voters so much don’t want the loss of income and free action AND their vote never accomplishes anything, why bother? I got a prelim call to jury halfway across the state when I had serious mobility problems. Also I was looking at hundreds to thousands of dollars in lost income for a Federal case. The costs and hole in lives pushes away the competent aware people, leaving a higher portion from fringes, all the fringes with axes to grind. Maybe attach jury selection to the SSA as that is a larger pool, and the numbers of citizens are clearer than drivers’ license? Drivers’ license is also possible as that’s also tieing into citizenship and needed on a daily basis. Make it less a problem for people who cannot dump their daily duties for unknown times and income. Decentralize, so travel time isn’t aggravating problems.

          For a courtroom 70 minutes away my elderly mother was supposed to travel to a strange town an hour and a half away to take an hour bus for an 8 am call. (yes the court was closer than the bus pickup point) She simply does not have the energy for all that back and forth, even if she is alert. Decisions while on a jury should be the burden, not the act of being there. You can’t concentrate on the case if you ache from the journey. I don’t know exactly how to fix this, but the current system I think sorts for certain types.

          2) This also shows a rampant lack of professionalism in many fields. Prosecuters should not be thinking of this as a game where there are no fouls. (Actors are supposed to be excited about a gig and act like a professional to colleagues and patrons. Governers are supposed to be looking out for the commonweal of their state children nearly as much as their own kids, and consult experts for medical issues they don’t have training in. Teachers are not just supposed to teach the basics of how to be a mature adult with a balanced viewpoint, but also have a framework to evaluate new ideas, new people, and new ways to do things- I learned the most from a teacher who I now suspect was diametically opposite because she taught all sides not just her own. The legal gamesmanship regarding human lives was why I could not stand Law and Order or How to Get Away With Murder. Not that there aren’t people like that, but that they are lauded and lionized for it. The overall goal is justice.

          There seems to be a major age break, that people under forty have little concept of professionalism. That doing a job, any job can be done efficiently and well. That there is value in work outside the pay or any glory involved. That your ego doesn’t need fawning because you were there. Everyone has had jobs and gigs they didn’t like, but a good person, a professional doesn’t use that as an excuse for acting up. Or cry victim when they get called for their unprofessionalism.

  3. The idea of getting to the point of punishing prosecutors or police decades after the fact is not practical or logical. The first response will be who’s going to pay for what are essentially “re-trials” with, or most likely, without, original witnesses or even complete evidence. DNA and especially fingerprint evidence is being questioned already. Second is who is going to do it (“it” being the prosecution of peers – a Caesar’s Wife situation. Long before it gets to a punishment level, the general response, within or without The Law, is going to be “shit happens.” At best: The watchdogs will stay busy with enough money and time to take on more cases and the powers that be will be more amenable to listening to them and acting accordingly.

  4. Almost impossible to read this this morning due to an erectile disfunction ad popping up every time I clicked on read more. I finally got here by clicking on comment. Don’t know if the problem is with gmail, chrome or the site? Doing a little testing/investigating from this end.

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