Following the egregious misconduct of Kern County prosecutor Robert Murray, where he inserted a fabricated two-line confession in an interrogation transcript, resulting in the dismissal of charges against the defendant and not much else, Glenn Reynolds raised the age-old question of what to do about prosecutorial misconduct in USA Today.
Our criminal justice system depends on honesty. It’s also based on the principle that people who do wrong should be punished. Prosecutors, however, often avoid any consequences for their misbehavior, even when it is repeated.
Worse yet, prosecutors are also immune from civil suit, under a Supreme Court-created doctrine called “absolute immunity” that is one of the greatest, though least discussed, examples of judicial activism in history. So prosecutors won’t punish prosecutors, and victims of prosecutors’ wrongdoing can’t even sue them for damages.
That leaves courts without much else to do besides throwing out charges in cases of outrageous misconduct. But if we care about seeing the law enforced fairly and honestly, we need more accountability.
Well, yeah, sure. We need more accountability. And rainbows. And unicorns. And people giving a damn. And rainbows. This is well-worn turf, and Reynolds is, of course, right, but pointing toward government to fix the problem moves us no closer to accountability, largely because the incentives that move government are strongly against fixing the problem, and government has already made the choice not to fix the problem.
Nearly 35 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prosecutors cannot face civil lawsuits over how they handle criminal cases in court, no matter how serious or obvious the abuses. Since then, courts have further limited the circumstances under which prosecutors — or their bosses — can be sued for civil rights violations.
Prosecutors have absolute immunity for whatever they do, no matter how wrong, in their prosecutorial function. As Reynolds correctly notes, this was judicial activism at its best, a policy decision that it was better that prosecutors not be “gun-shy” for fear of being sued than that there be accountability for misconduct.
The alternative option, according to the Supremes, was that judges sanction prosecutors for misconduct and/or they be subject to attorney discipline. The problem, of course, was that neither of these things happen, and there is no way to make them happen. It’s neither the defense lawyer’s nor the “people’s” call to make, except to the extent of electing judges who would do so. Instead, we elect judges who are endorsed by the local police union.
At A Public Defender, Gideon runs through the “viable options” available to deal with prosecutorial misconduct. While viewed from the Connecticut-centric perspective, they’re pretty much the same as always, with the same problems as always. Mostly, they just don’t happen and we can’t make them happen. The options rely on other people providing the solution.
Yet, Gid raises one point that is within our grasp.
Defense attorneys proffer the same reasons – “I have to work with this prosecutor; I have a private practice; I have to think about my clients”. They are, to some extent, legitimate. Private attorneys do have a business to run and they have to make their income somehow. They certainly don’t want to be alienating prosecutors who they have to deal with regularly.
That he couches this option in terms of private lawyers having to “make this income somehow” reflects a bit of public defender snark. Private lawyers, like public defenders, have to go back to the same prosecutor’s office on the next case, and the next, and hope that the exercise of prosecutorial discretion won’t be used as pay-back for animosity generated by the last case. File a grievance against a prosecutor and, even if proven right, the fear is that other prosecutors in the office will exact a price for the hubris.
As noble as it may be to grieve a prosecutor in the case of defendant A, it’s ignoble to put defendant B’s plea offer at risk in return, as we don’t trade off the life of one person for the life of another. Given the breadth of prosecutorial discretion, there is no way to account for payback or to challenge it.
Yet, this is the only piece within the control of defense counsel. One solution was tried by the NYSACDL when it created a prosecutorial misconduct grievance committee, to whom members could go with their grievances and, if the committee agreed, would assume the role of grieving against the prosecutor and raise the grievance with the disciplinary committee.
In its first outing, against then-Westchester District Attorney Jeanine Pirro, whose only prosecutorial skill was getting elected and giving press conferences replete with outrageous representations against defendants, the committee’s complaint received a huge yawn. The disciplinary committee responded, “nah,” and that was that.
While Reynolds and Gideon are obviously right in saying that the system lacks accountability, and that a system lacking in accountability of its prosecutors is a system without any assurance of integrity, we’re no further down the road of achieving accountability than we’ve ever been.
In the case of Robert Murray, dismissal of charges against the defendant resolves one side of the equation. The defendant was the direct victim of his fabrication of a confession, and the need for deterrence of prosecutorial misconduct trumps the concern that he was guilty and will walk. Mind you, this isn’t exactly good for society, as the potential criminal goes unpunished because the prosecutor was outrageously dishonest.
And yet, it’s also not good for society as the outrageously dishonest prosecutor remains a prosecutor, remains a lawyer, remains in his job, so he can do it again. The most obvious, and likely effective, means of addressing this would be the judge treating prosecutors with the same expectation of integrity and honesty as the defense lawyer, but that doesn’t happen.
It’s unsatisfying to say, because we can’t force a judge to do his job even when it’s unpleasant and may require him to take harsh action against a prosecutor pal or (former) team member, but of all the bad options available, this seems to be the one most amenable to change. Plus, to the extent judges are elected, the one most easily subject to the will of the people.
So what are the chances it will happen? As the Second Department Disciplinary Committee said to the NYSACDL prosecutorial grievance committee, “nah.”