Amicus brief filed in case where Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office had no system in place to track incentives for informant testimony
(WASHINGTON, DC, SEPTEMBER 16, 2008)—Arguing that top-level prosecutors must be held accountable when they set policies that ignore or trample on defendants’ constitutional rights and lead to wrongful convictions, the Innocence Network (an association of nonprofit legal clinics and criminal justice resource centers of which the Innocence Project is a founding member) filed a friend-of-the-court brief at the U.S. Supreme Court in a California case that will be heard in November.
A man who served 24 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit is suing the former Los Angeles District Attorney because the chief prosecutor had no procedures or policies in place to track deals with jailhouse informants who testify for the state. False testimony from a jailhouse informant was central in Thomas Goldstein’s 1980 murder conviction, as it is in 15% of wrongful convictions overturned through DNA testing nationwide. In exchange for the informant’s false testimony, prosecutors dropped one case against him and reduced the charges in another case. The prosecutor had a legal obligation to tell Goldstein’s attorneys that the informant received an incentive for his testimony – but the prosecutor handling the trial didn’t even know about the incentive because the District Attorney’s office had no system in place to share information about such deals. As a result, the informant gave false testimony and the trial prosecutor, defense, judge and jury didn’t know that he had a strong motive to lie.
Individual prosecutors already have absolute immunity from lawsuits seeking to hold them accountable for their trial-related “adversarial” conduct but not for “investigative” or “administrative” actions. A federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that Goldstein’s lawsuit could proceed because it involves an office-wide administrative system and policy of the District Attorney’s Office rather than a prosecutor’s actions in a specific case. (The Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office is the nation’s largest prosecuting agency, with more than 1,000 prosecuting attorneys on staff.) The prosecutors have taken the case to the Supreme Court, which agreed this spring to hear the case. Oral argument is set for November 5.
In its brief, the Innocence Network says that if the U.S. Supreme Court extends absolute immunity to cover prosecutors’ managerial and administrative functions, critical safeguards could be eroded. For example, district attorneys could enact office-wide policies to destroy evidence in cases, restrict forensic analysts from preparing written reports on evidence that could prove a defendant’s innocence at trial, or implement blanket policies that all deals with informants be made verbally and not in writing (so defense lawyers never learn about them and can’t present the information to a jury). A ruling to expand absolute immunity would “grant a dangerous carte blanche” for such policies, the brief says, and would “be an invitation to disaster” by allowing prosecutors to systemically deprive defendants of their constitutional rights.
“People see cases where someone is finally exonerated after decades in prison, and they ask why there aren’t more safeguards to hold the system accountable. If the Supreme Court rules in favor of the prosecutors in this case, those few chief prosecutors who knowingly have office-wide policies that flout clearly established constitutional principles will be absolutely insulated from legal attack and our system of justice will be seriously compromised,” said Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck.
The Goldstein case touches on a key cause of wrongful convictions: testimony from informants or snitches with incentives to lie. Full disclosure of deals made between prosecutors and informants is crucial to defending against possible false testimony—and is a constitutional obligation under a 1972 Supreme Court ruling. In Los Angeles, top-level administrators in the District Attorney’s Office made the decision not to create even a rudimentary system to inform prosecutors about deals made with informants. These top officials were aware of the problems resulting from the lack of a system when Goldstein’s case came to trial in the early 1980s, but they deliberately made no effort to remedy it until a 1990 grand jury report revealed its vast scope. Referring to the grand jury findings, the Innocence Network brief says, “the failure to have any system in place led to the wholesale deception by witnesses of not only defense counsel and judges, but also individual prosecutors … Such abuses . . .were present when Mr. Goldstein was wrongly convicted precisely because top officials were deliberately indifferent.”
The brief emphasizes that the threat of civil action is the only potential deterrent to misconduct that leads to wrongful convictions. Neither the public nor the press can view the secret inner workings of a prosecutor’s office, and there is little judicial recourse against government misconduct within the criminal justice system itself. Furthermore, a lawsuit is the only chance for a wrongfully convicted person to find some redress for losing their liberty to a system that failed to find the truth. As the brief states:
“Mr. Goldstein’s eventual release on habeas corpus, while vindicating him in principle and providing him at least with prospective relief, did not and could not adequately remedy the grave injustice done to him. By pursuing this lawsuit, Mr. Goldstein has at least a chance to obtain partial justice from those whose blatant misconduct deprived him of his liberty for twenty-four years.”
Download the full brief here
in the case of Van De Kamp v. Goldstein, 07-854.
In addition to the Innocence Project – which was founded by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld in 1992 and is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law – the
members include: Alaska Innocence Project; Arizona Justice Project; Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted; California & Hawaii Innocence Project; Center on Wrongful Convictions; Cooley Innocence Project; Delaware Office of the Public Defender; Downstate Illinois Innocence Project; Georgia Innocence Project; Idaho Innocence Project; Indiana University School of Law Wrongful Conviction Component; Innocence Network UK; Innocence Project Arkansas; Innocence Project New Orleans; Innocence Project New Zealand; Innocence Project Northwest Clinic; Innocence Project of Florida; Innocence Project of Iowa; Innocence Project of Minnesota; Innocence Project of Texas; Kentucky Innocence Project; Maryland Office of the Public Defender; Medill Innocence Project; Michigan Innocence Clinic; Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project; Midwestern Innocence Project; Mississippi Innocence Project; Montana Innocence Project; Nebraska Innocence Project; New England Innocence Project; North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence; Northern Arizona Justice Project; Northern California Innocence Project; Office of the Public Defender, State of Delaware; Ohio Innocence Project; Pace Post-Conviction Project; Reinvestigation Project; Rocky Mountain Innocence Project; Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University, Justice Brandeis Innocence Project; Texas Center for Actual Innocence; Texas Innocence Network; The Reinvestigation Project of the New York Office of the Appellate Defender; University of British Columbia Law Innocence Project; University of Leeds Innocence Project; and Wisconsin Innocence Project.