News 11.04.09

Wrongful Convictions and Prosecutorial Immunity

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments this morning in a case centered on wrongful convictions and the issue of whether prosecutors are protected by absolute immunity, even when their misconduct extends beyond the courtroom.

Two men filed a civil rights lawsuit against Iowa prosecutors who allegedly coerced false testimony and fabricated evidence to convict them of crimes they say they didn't commit. Prosecutors in the case have claimed that they are protected by absolute immunity, and have stated outright that there is no constitutional "right not to be framed.”

During arguments, Chief Justice John Roberts expressed concern about creating a “chilling effect on prosecutors” by allowing them to be sued. Justice John Paul Stevens, however, said it was “perverse” that a prosecutor can be sued if he or she fabricates evidence and then hands it to another prosecutor to conduct a trial, but can’t be sued if he or she completes that trial. He wasn’t the only justice to raise concerns:

"So the law is the more deeply you're involved in the wrong, the more likely you are to be immune? That's a strange proposition," Justice Anthony Kennedy said.

The case comes to the Supreme Court following a decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, which found that the men could sue because they had presented evidence that the prosecutors in the case had violated their right to due process. In reviewing the Eighth Circuit decision, the Supreme Court is essentially considering the extent of prosecutorial immunity under historical precedent and the Constitution.

The two men at the center of the case, Terry Harrington and Curtis McGhee, served 25 years in prison for a murder they’ve always said they didn’t commit. On appeal, the men discovered records showing that prosecutors had coerced a witness to testify against them and that police and prosecutors had withheld evidence pointing to another suspect. They were freed this year.

One argument raised by the prosecutors is that allowing these men to sue will open floodgates for prisoners to allege misconduct by prosecutors. Attorneys for Harrington and McGhee argue that this case is so egregious that it would meet even a strict standard under which defendants could sue prosecutors.

In an editorial this morning, the Washington Post agrees:

The vast majority of prosecutors perform honorably and understand that they are duty-bound not just to secure convictions but to seek justice. Those who don't often suffer no consequences at the hands of state or bar organizations, as a brief in support of Mr. McGhee and Mr. Harrington convincingly argues. For these few renegades, perhaps the prospect of being held liable will help to keep them in line or, at least, hold them accountable.  


News coverage of the case,

Pottawattamie County v. McGhee

:

Associated Press:

Court Worries About Stifling Prosecutors

NPR Morning Edition:

Can Prosecutors Be Sued by the People They Framed?

Washington Post Editorial:

The Right Not to Be Framed

Analaysis of the Case by

SCOTUSblog


Transcript of today’s oral arguments

.

Briefs and filings in the case at

SCOTUSwiki

.

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