Usually, when Ethics Alarms headlines California’s lawmakers, it is because they have done something irresponsible, like in this post, this one, and my personal favorite, this one, in which Governor Jerry Brown signed a minimum wage law that he admitted might not make economic sense, because it was consistent with partisan fantasies.
But a blind pig might find a truffle, every dog has its day, and even a stopped clock is right occasionally. California just passed a desperately needed law that no other state has had the courage to pass. Its purpose: take serious measures to stop prosecutorial misconduct that sends innocent people to jail, a problem that is rampant everywhere in the U.S., but particularly bad in the Golden State.
Brown just signed into law a new statute making it a felony for prosecutors to alter or intentionally withhold evidence that could be used to exonerate defendants. Violators could be sentenced to up to three years in prison. That’s not nearly enough punishment when the crime often robs innocent citizens of decades of their lives, but it sends an important, and one hopes an effective, warning…with teeth. Continue reading →
Prosecutors are not supposed to play this game…
“I’m not saying you did anything nefariously, I’m saying you don’t know what exculpatory means.”
—- Judge Barry G. Williams, presiding in the Baltimore trial of Officer Caesar Goodson Jr for his alleged role in the death of Freddie Gray, excoriating the prosecution for illegally withholding Brady evidence from the defense.
There is more evidence that the Baltimore prosecution of six police officers for the death of Freddie Gray a year ago is less a matter of seeking justice than it is a sacrificial offering of innocent law enforcement professionals to avoid civil unrest.
I have already chronicled the disturbing pattern of the prosecution in this case, where premature and dubious charges were brought against the officers in the wake of destructive rioting and threats from African-American activists. Now it appears that a statement supporting the officers by Donta Allen, the man sharing the police van with Gray—who ended his trip fatally injured—was never made available to the defense. Because the statement was potentially supportive of the officers in their defense, the material had to be handed over by prosecutors under the Supreme Court decision in Brady v. Maryland, the landmark 1963 case holding in 1963 that “the suppression by the prosecution of evidence favorable to an accused upon request violates due process where the evidence is material either to guilt or to punishment, irrespective of the good faith or bad faith of the prosecution.”
There were only two people present during Ray’s final ride, other than Gray himself: Goodson, the driver, and Donta Allen, another arrested subject who was separated from Gray by a thin metal screen.
Allen has made wildly conflicting statements about what transpired. He initially told police that Gray was “trying to knock himself out” in the back of the van, then later denied that statement to the news media. However, Allen had a second session with police investigators a year ago, shortly after the charges against the officers were brought by City Attorney Marilyn Mosely. In that meeting, Allen reiterated and confirmed his original statement that suggested Gray was trying to injure himself. Prosecutors never brought his second statement to the attention of the defense.
Continue reading →
Craig Watkins, a D.A. who understands his ethical priorities.
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. Continue reading →
And all this time I believed that TNT reality star Kelly Siegler was a real star prosecutor who had actually convicted guilty people while observing the law and professional ethics.
That was the sound of my brains exploding through the top of my skull, this time because they deserved to. I never learn.
Or is the state of prosecutorial ethics in the United States so wretched that Kelly Siegler is the best ex-prosecutor that TNT could find?
I’ll stick my neck out and say, “no.” I say that even though the state of prosecutorial ethics is pretty terrible. Kelly Siegler left her job as a Harris County, Texas district attorney in 2008 after successfully prosecuting 68 murder trials. In 2013, TNT signed her up to star in a reality show called“Cold Justice,” now in its third season on the cable network.
Good title! A state-court judge recommended a new trial for a Texas inmate named David Temple, prosecuted by Siegler in 2007 for allegedly killing his pregnant wife. He was convicted, but the court says the “legendary prosecutor” illegally withheld critical exculpatory evidence. Wrote Judge Larry Gist in his opinion calling for a re-trial: “Of enormous significance was Siegler’s testimony at the habeas hearing that apparently favorable evidence did not need to be disclosed if the state did not believe it was true.” Continue reading →