Over the last few months, we have posted twice about the problem of prosecutorial misconduct. Thanks to local and national efforts from groups like The Innocence Project, hundreds of wrongfully convicted inmates have been freed in the last several years. Many of these innocent individuals have spent decades in prison or were on death row for crimes such as murder.
Prosecutors are routinely guilty of withholding important evidence which could prove a defendant's innocence. The Innocence Project and other groups have also revealed that prosecutorial misconduct is a widespread problem in every state, including Maryland.
What makes the problem even worse is that the U.S. Supreme Court has protected prosecutors from retribution in several landmark rulings. Recently, however, former Justice John Paul Stevens spoke out against these Supreme Court decisions. He believes that these rulings give prosecutors impunity to violate constitutional rights.
Stevens was specifically referring to a case which we posted about in January. A Louisiana man spent 14 years on death row after he was wrongfully convicted. Just before his scheduled execution date, his lawyer discovered that the prosecution was withholding vitally important DNA evidence which would exonerate the man.
After the innocent man was freed, he sued the District Attorney's office and was awarded $14 million by a jury. However, in March, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed that decision, citing that prosecutors need to be shielded from lawsuits against them in order to effectively do their jobs.
Former Justice Stevens believes that decisions such as this one will allow prosecutors to freely violate the constitution. He also believes that certain reforms to our justice system could prevent future misconduct. Check back later this week as we discuss more about this important issue.
Source: Wall Street Journal online, "Stevens Urges Congress to Crack Down on Prosecutorial Misconduct," Jess Bravin, 03 May 2011