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Tuesday, January 05, 2010

"Sue me, sue me ... what can you do me"

A civil case in Iowa may change things for many people involved in the oxymoronic criminal "justice" system in this country.

The L.A. Times reports today that a lawsuit accusing local prosecutors of conspiring with police to frame two murder suspects was settled on the eve of a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Prevailing case law holds that police can be sued for such conduct, but prosecutors can't. This is based on a historically based tradition of immunity for government officials in exercise of their duties. The idea of the tradition is based on the notion that officials shouldn't be fearful being sued for doing their jobs. Certainly, if a D.A. could be sued for every judgment that affected someone's life, it would result in chaos.

However, this recent case threatened to overturn the tradition. In 1977, a retired police officer working as a security guard was shot and killed during an attempted robbery of cars at a dealership. A witness identified a "white suspect," who was arrested and failed a lie box test.

But police arrested a 16 year old car thief who fingered the two African Americans as the killers. The snitch's facts at first didn't fit the known facts. Defendants were convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to prison.

In the words of the article, "Decades later. [defendants] were able to obtain official files showing that police and prosecutors ... coaxed the witness to implicate them, while ignoring evidence that pointed to the white suspect. The sole witness recanted his testimony."

While the prosecutors maintain that they still believe in the defendants' guilt, the county settled the case for $12 million dollars, fearing an adverse Supreme Court opinion. During oral argument, Justices Kennedy and Stevens, two of the centrist "swing votes" on the Court, both indicated doubts about the tradition against suing prosecutors when intentional use of false testimony is alleged.

In addition to the central issues: the continuing reality of police and prosecutorial misconduct and the continuing evil of racist elements in the system, another point is illustrated by the case.

The errors were not discovered until "decades" after the wrong. It was revealed by persistent lawyering by use of habeas corpus to discover the documents and to investigate and re-interview the witness that helped to expose the misconduct.

Proponents of laws limiting habeas corpus, asserting a need for "certainty" and "finality" and "speedy justice" must confront this case as well as the hundreds of other examples contradicting their arguments.