Prosecutors nationwide have traditionally been shielded from lawsuits brought by wrongfully convicted individuals. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that this immunity is necessary to ensure that prosecutors can do their jobs without fear of personal legal implication.
But last year, the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that supervising prosecutors could be liable if they failed to create a system that safeguarded against wrongful conviction. And now a lawsuit – brought by Thomas Goldstein, who served 24 years in prison before being released on evidence of his innocence – alleges that Los Angeles’ head prosecutor can be held liable for the use of a jailhouse informant in Goldstein’s case. The U.S. Supreme Court
that it will hear this case during its next term.
The Los Angeles County district attorney's office, the nation's largest prosecution office, once made regular use of jail informants, but at the time it had no system for sharing information among prosecutors countywide about which informants were reliable and what they had been promised.
Goldstein was ordered released after 24 years in prison after the sole eyewitness recanted and doubts emerged about a supposed confession by Goldstein to an informant. Years after his conviction, Goldstein learned that his jailhouse accuser — a three-time felon — had lied in court when he denied having received promises of special treatment from another county prosecutor in exchange for his testimony.
"This suit is 29 years in the making, and it's about accountability," said Goldstein. "[It] will put every prosecutor's office on notice that they need a system for sharing information. And by doing so, it will result in fewer wrongful convictions."
The lawsuit names John Van de Kamp, Los Angeles County’s chief prosecutor at the time of Goldstein’s conviction and now the chair of the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, one of the country’s most active innocence commissions.
…Van de Kamp sees a note of irony in the situation. He is the chair of the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, a group set up to prevent wrongful convictions. It has pressed for a law that would require corroboration before testimony from a jailhouse informant could be used in a criminal trial.
The Legislature approved such a bill last year, but it in October Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it. He called the measure "unnecessary" because this "perceived problem . . . arises in very few criminal cases."
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. (LA Times, 04/13/08)