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Thursday, March 22nd, 2012

New Orleans, Louisiana


It seems to be spreading like a communicable disease. And apparently there is no cure. Week after week, there are new reports of prosecutors, on both the federal and state level, engaging in premeditated acts of prosecutorial misconduct. Coaching witnesses to lie. Hiding evidence from the defense counsel that would favor the accused. And even calculated cover-ups that put a falsely convicted person on death row. Has justice run amuck? Has Lady Justice lost her way?

 Take a look at some of the recent stories about wayward prosecutors in major newspapers throughout the county. The Pittsburg Post-Gazette researched a 10 part story on this national problem. They summed up their findings by concluding:  “Hundreds of times during the past 10 years, federal agents and prosecutors have pursued justice by breaking the law. They lied, hid evidence, distorted facts, engaged in cover-ups, paid for perjury and set up innocent people in a relentless effort to win indictments, guilty pleas and convictions, a two year Post-Gazette investigation found.”

Just a few months ago, the Houston Chronicle charged: “This year we have read story after story of egregious prosecutorial misconduct. Prosecutors have repeatedly robbed innocent men of their liberty.  Prosecutors who willfully falsify evidence must be held to answer under the law. We dishonor the memory of those who paid the ultimate price for our liberty if we demand anything less to preserve that liberty.”

A court ordered study concerning the botched trial of former Alaska U.S. Senator Ted Stevens was released just last week. Prosecutors had withheld key evidence and statements from witnesses that contradicted the government’s case and that would have found Stevens innocent.  A few weeks after his wrongful conviction, he was defeated for re election. Stevens died in a plane crash shortly thereafter. A report ordered by the trial judge concluded there was definitely “intentional misconduct,” and the present U.S. Senator from Alaska is calling for the prosecutors to be fired and strongly sanctioned.  In my opinion they should be criminally prosecuted and lose their licenses to practice law.

A key part of the Stephens investigative report says: “Handwritten notes taken by an FBI agent “contained significant information that was never disclosed to Senator Stephens’ attorneys. “His own attorneys elaborated by saying that “Corrupt prosecutors obtained an illegal verdict”¦ and the report “provides evidence of government corruption that is shocking in its boldness and its breadth.”

There are interesting analogies here. The Stephens investigative report, the trial judge and the lawyers all have concluded that withholding an FBI agent’s “hand written notes is “shocking,” and is a blatant example of prosecutorial misconduct. This reminds me of a Louisiana case some years ago where the FBI agent’s notes were withheld, and that led to the conviction of an innocent man. But prosecutors in the Bayou State have a habit of withholding evidence that would have cleared a defendant.  In the past year alone, three New Orleans cases have made their way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices’ concluded that convicting the innocent by withholding key evidence seems to be a way of life in many Louisiana federal and state courts.

As quoted in the New York Times, a former U.S. Attorney from New Orleans said that the office policy was “keeping away as much information as possible from the defense attorney.”Â Defense lawyers in New Orleans confirm that there have been 28 convictions, many that put defendants on death row, where later it was determined that prosecutors had withheld key evidence that would have supported the innocence of the accused.

In the notorious case of Dan Bright, convicted and put on death row for a murder he did not commit, evidence came out years after his conviction that the FBI, thanks to a credible informant, had been in possession of the name of the actual killer all along. Luckily for Dan Bright, because of the unconstitutional withholding of key evidence by the prosecution and the FBI, his conviction was thrown out, and he now is a free man ““ after 8 years behind bars, much of that time on death row

Another death row victim out of New Orleans was John Thompson, who spent 14 years on death row, even though the prosecutor who sent him to prison knew all along that he was innocent.  On his death bed, dying of cancer, this rogue prosecutor confessed to a colleague that he had, in fact, withheld key evidence that would have cleared Thompson. The fellow prosecutor who had received this confession waited three years to let the prosecutor’s office know the real truth.

It just never seems to end in New Orleans. A longtime federal prosecutor, just this week resigned from the U.S. Attorney’s office after admitting that he used an alias to post defamatory and scurrilous commentary about cases he was handling on the website of the state’s largest newspaper. The Times Picayune reported that one of the prosecutor’s aliases was “campstblue.”Â  The U.S. Attorney’s office in New Orleans is on Camp Street.  The posting was about a former New Orleans Mayor who is under investigation by the prosecutor’s office. “Campstblue” wrote: “For all of you who have a penchant for firearms and how they work, Ray Nagin lives on Park Island.”  Does the posting urge someone with a gun to go after the controversial former Mayor? And if so, isn’t this a serious crime of inciting a felony?  Another day in the continuing saga of blatant and corrupt prosecutorial misconduct in New Orleans.

The attitude of too many prosecutors is to do whatever it takes to get convictions. But that’s not the prosecutor’s job. As federal appeals courts have said repeatedly: “A prosecutor has a special duty commensurate with a prosecutor’s unique power, to assure that defendants receive fair trials. Prosecutors sometimes forget that the prosecutor’s special duty is not to convict, but to secure justice.”

Here’s how this week’s lead editorial in The Wall Street Journal summarized the problem.  “Something is very rotten at the U.S. Department of Justice. Americans hand prosecutors an awesome power.  We are seeing a pattern of abuse of this power, in order to win big cases.  Prosecutors should remember that their job is to do justice and not simply to beat the defense team.”

As the poet said many years ago: “It is just as well that justice is blind; she might not like some of the things done in her name if she could see them.”Â  There is much for Lady Justice to be concerned about today.

Peace and Justice.

Jim Brown

Jim Brown’s syndicated column appears each week in numerous newspapers and websites throughout the country.  You can read all his past columns and see continuing updates at www.jimbrownla.com.  You can also hear Jim’s nationally syndicated radio show each Sunday morning from 9 am till 11:00 am, central time, on the Genesis Radio Network, with a live stream at http://www.jimbrownla.com.

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