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Supreme Court to take another look at prosecutorial misconduct

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Prosecutors, says Angela Davis, former head of the D.C. public defenders office, “are the most powerful officials in our criminal justice system.”

Davis, a professor at American University’s Washington College of Law, explains:

Robert Barnes has been a Washington Post reporter and editor since 1987. He has covered the Supreme Court since November 2006. View Archive

“They decide whether a person’s going to be charged, what to charge them with, whether there’s going to be a plea bargain and what the plea bargain will be. As they make those decisions, they exercise almost boundless discretion.”

That combination of power and discretion, she said, “can and has led to abuse.”

It’s an issue of perpetual interest at the Supreme Court. Next week, the court will hear a case in which a Louisiana death row inmate alleges that prosecutors withheld information that would have cast doubt on the eyewitness account that led to his conviction.

The case from New Orleans concerns prosecutors who worked for former district attorney Harry Connick Sr., who left office in 2003.

If that sounds familiar, it is because Connick and his office were at the center of last term’s big decision about prosecutorial misconduct. In that controversial 5-to-4 decision, the court stripped a $14 million award from John Thompson, who spent 14 years on death row after prosecutors withheld evidence that showed his innocence.

The court has long agreed that individual prosecutors should be protected from civil liability so that they may freely pursue criminals. However, Thompson had convinced a jury that Connick’s office should be held accountable for not properly training staff about the duty prosecutors have to turn over evidence favorable to the defense.

But Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by the court’s other conservatives, said Thompson did not meet the high standard of showing a pattern of “deliberate indifference” on Connick’s part.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, on behalf of the court’s liberals, read her dissent from the bench, saying she would have upheld the award against Connick’s office for the “gross, deliberately indifferent and long-continuing violation of (Thompson’s) fair trial right.”

Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, said the court’s decision in Connick v. Thompson made it clear that civil remedies are not a viable option for those trying to stop prosecutorial misconduct.

He, Thompson and others were part of a group of “innocence advocates” who last week proposed a national dialogue with prosecutors to try to find other ways to investigate and sanction prosecutors who break the rules.

Santa Clara University law professor Kathleen Ridolfi said the group needs to find a way around “a system where the Supreme Court refuses to hold prosecutors accountable, even for repeated, deliberate misconduct.”

The new case, Smith v. Cain , is not about punishing prosecutors. It is about whether withholding evidence should mean a new trial for Juan Smith, who prosecutors said was involved in a gangland-style shooting that left five dead. Prosecutors have an obligation under a nearly 50-year-old Supreme Court precedent in Brady v. Maryland to turn over any evidence material to a defendant’s guilt or punishment.

The case is expected to be determined by its specific facts rather than the potential for a new examination of Brady. It also seems not coincidental that it involves New Orleans prosecutors.

Smith’s lawyers point out that courts have overturned four death sentences from Orleans Parish because of violations of the Brady rules, and they say eight other non-capital cases have met the same fate.

The American Bar Association has asked the court to use the case to tell prosecutors that they have a greater obligation than simply meeting Brady requirements. The ABA says the court should mandate that prosecutors abide by ABA model rules that call for disclosure of any exculpatory evidence, whether it is determined to be material or not.

The National District Attorneys Association replied that the ABA is nothing but a private association of lawyers that consistently takes the side of criminal defendants. The regulation of prosecutors, it says, “is appropriately left to the individual states.”

Such sensitivity is why Scheck and others at a news conference last week took pains to say they believe only a small slice of prosecutors have committed misconduct. He said he was generally advised, “ ‘Don’t go around the country pillorying prosecutors and giving the impression that what happened in John Thompson’s case is happening across the board in an epidemic.’ ”

He added: “ We’re not saying that.”

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