Remember the scene in the movie, The Fugitive, where Harrison Ford is about to jump off a cliff into a raging river? He turns to his pursuer, a federal agent played by Tommy Lee Jones, and says: “I’m innocent!” Jones shakes his head and says: “I don’t care.” In recent months, a series of investigative reports from all across the country have concluded that numerous federal and state prosecutors are primarily interested winning -- getting the indictment, the guilty plea, the conviction. But when it comes to seeking justice, they just don’t seem to care.
The Houston Chronicle has written of widespread abuses on the part of state and federal prosecutors throughout Texas, reporting “story after story of egregious prosecutorial misconduct. Prosecutors have repeatedly robbed innocent men of their liberty.” The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette investigated misconduct by prosecutors in a recent ten part series and concluded that: “Hundreds of times in the past 10 years, federal 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.”
The Wall Street Journal was just as blunt in a recent editorial that read: “Something is very rotten at the U.S. Department of Justice. Americans hand prosecutors an awesome power – the power to destroy fortunes and futures, and in this case to reallocate national political power. We are seeing a pattern of abuse of this power, in order to win big cases.” And from The New York Times: “It is the height of hypocrisy when prosecutors, who call others to account for breaking rules, break rules themselves.”
Shakespeare proposed killing all the lawyers. But way too often, lawyer prosecutors have made it a habit of killing any semblance of fair play. Too often there is a “win at all costs” mentality where the end justifies whatever means a prosecutor decides to use to obtain a conviction. Efforts are often not made to seek justice, which is what the criminal justice system is supposed to be all about. Justice is swept aside when a prosecutorial “no holds barred” effort is pursued to get a conviction at any cost.
There are few locations throughout the country where breaking the law by prosecutors at both the state and federal level does not take place. But the unanimous winner for the greatest number of egregious cases for prosecutorial misconduct, at both the state and federal level, is New Orleans. In the Crescent City, rarely a month goes by without a prosecutor willfully violating the law in order to obtain a conviction.
In a recent study by the Innocence Project, a number of innocent men, convicted in New Orleans for murder and sentenced to death, took their cases to the U.S. Supreme Court where their convictions were overturned because of prosecutorial misconduct. One of the most chilling and outrageous convictions was that of Dan Bright, who was sentenced to death for a murder he did not commit. He spent fifteen years on death row, and was dangerously close to being executed. An informant finally blew the whistle that the FBI had in its possession the name of the actual killer all along. Let that sink in -- Our protectors knew all along that Dan Bright was innocent, and yet they did nothing to stop this completely innocent man from almost being put to death.
The latest soap opera involves the New Orleans U.S. Attorney’s office where the longest serving federal prosecutor in the country, Jim Letten, resigned amid a scandal involving a whole host of his staff. A federal judge issued a scathing 50-page order alleging possible criminal misconduct by former federal prosecutor Sal Perricone and former first Assistant U.S. Attorney Jan Mann. The judge singled out Perricone for testifying “falsely” in his courtroom, and called for the New Orleans U.S Attorney’s office to be investigated by the Justice Department. Perricone and Mann both resigned under a cloud of suspicion along with Mann’s husband, Jim Mann.
So can it get any worse down in the Bayou State? Well, it appears that it can. The Louisiana Board of Ethics, charged with the ethical oversight of all public officials is now having many of their cases dismissed for, would you believe, “withholding information that would infringe upon the accused’s ‘due process’ rights.” So we have these watchers who are supposed to be watching the public watchers who are themselves hiding information that is required, under the law, to be produced. Yet another case of blatant prosecutorial misconduct. Kafka and Orwell would feel right at home in Louisiana.
New Orleans is an aberration when it comes to prosecutorial misconduct, but not by a lot when you review the rising incidences throughout the rest of the country. There certainly are a number of jurisdictions where prosecutors insist on fail play and try to seek out a just result. But the problem of out of control prosecutors who willfully violate the law is growing. Every citizen needs to ask themselves if this is the kind of justice system that should be tolerated. Can we do better? Or do we really care?
Do these prosecutors who break the law act in an evil way? Or do they just not care? A recent best selling book of Viet Nam, Matterhorn, raises a similar question. “No, the jungle wasn’t evil. It was indifferent. So, too, was the world. Evil, then, must be the negation of something man had added to the world. Ultimately, it was caring about something that made the world liable to evil. Caring. And then the caring gets torn asunder. But not everybody cares.”
This exemplifies, in most instances, the prototype of those who bend the law and hide exculpatory evidence to get a conviction. They may not be evil, but they are indifferent. The end justifies the means. They just don’t care about the meaning of our Constitution. If government crimes are not checked for the few, then we all are at risk. We can do better.