Prosecutors: Many Bad Apples

The Daily Beast’s series of articles on prosecutors this summer was alarming. This summary gives a taste of the content:
“American prosecutors are powerful officials. They have the power to deprive people of their liberty, destroy their reputations, and even take away their lives. They have virtually unlimited discretion in how they exercise their powers.
And yet, they are essentially exempt from any outside supervision, oversight, or accountability. As a result, they can abuse their powers with impunity. And prosecutors do just that, with devastating consequences both for individual defendants (especially people of color 
and for the system as a whole.”

The system of electing prosecutors restricts their intake and makes it very difficult for ‘bad apples’ to be removed:
“Incumbent prosecutors win re-election 95 percent of the time …for the simple reason that they frequently run unopposed… It is easy to see why: challengers come from the same local pool of criminal attorneys. About 20 percent of challengers in contested elections for district attorney work in the prosecutor’s office and run against their boss. Most of the other challengers are local criminal defense lawyers who have to cooperate with the district attorney in plea bargaining or face him or her in court. In either case the costs of losing a race against a prosecutor are high.”

Prosecutors seeking re-election become more aggressive in court, abandoning fairness in favor of convictions. Voters tend to hear about little other than the prosecutor’s rate of convictions (easily manipulated by dropping charges or settling cases through plea bargaining); they do not learn whether the prosecutor is committed to justice. For instance, how many people wonder why D.A. Forrest Allgood, the prosecutor in both Willie’s cases, has a record of winning murder convictions for people who are later found to be innocent? 

Earlier this year Allgood dropped charges for Willie’s 1993 case, following the key witness’s revelation that he was pressured into giving false testimony by officials, including Allgood himself.

In Willie’s remaining case, Allgood systematically dismissed African-American jurors for reasons that were not obstacles for white jurors, or for reasons such as reading magazines aimed at African-Americans.* The predominance of (racially biased and more punitive) white jurors statistically increased the chances of Willie receiving both a guilty verdict and a death sentence. 

During Willie’s trial Allgood built on the false testimony provided by the FBI hair expert: the prosecutor suggested to the jury that Willie was in the victim’s car. This was a critical element in the case (no other physical evidence directly placed Willie anywhere near the scene of the murders). Allgood bolstered the impact of this unwarranted suggestion by improperly calling Willie a monster.

Shocking though Allgood’s behavior is, the staggering truth is that he is far from alone. Judge Alex Kozinski has caused controversy by referring to an “epidemic” of prosecutors withholding evidence from the defense; but little has changed. And, as the Daily Beast points out,
“…prosecutors are hardly ever punished, even for egregious misconduct, like getting witnesses to lie, using fraudulent evidence, and hiding exculpatory evidence, because prosecutors are immune from being sued civilly.”

It is time for this to change.

 *There is even evidence that in Mississippi prosecutors’ training has included instruction as to how to disguise their ‘striking’ of black jurors (see the Equal Justice Initiative’s paper, Illegal Racial Discrimination: a Continuing Legacy, page 20).
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