Sunday, September 06, 2009

Bill Lueders: Justice is everybody's business

The following editorial was published in the September 3, 2009 issue of the Isthmus, Madison, Wisconsin. Bill Lueders is News Editor of the Isthmus.

Justice is everybody's business
The public needs to hold police and prosecutors accountable
Bill Lueders on Thursday 09/03/2009

In April 2008 I wrote a web article about an astonishing legal filing in the Ralph Armstrong case. It alleged that a Dane County prosecutor, by then retired, not only failed to investigate a tip that pointed to a wrongful conviction but set out to destroy evidence that might have proven this.

The article did not take sides. It merely reported what the filing alleged: In the mid-1990s, Dane County prosecutor John Norsetter was contacted by a woman from Texas who said Steve Armstrong had admitted to the 1980 rape and murder of which his brother Ralph was convicted.

Accompanying the filing were detailed affidavits from two women who described this confession, and their efforts to call attention to it. One of them purportedly spoke to Norsetter, Ralph Armstrong's original prosecutor.

Norsetter failed to pass on this information and in 2006 ordered testing that destroyed what remained of a DNA sample, in violation of an existing court order.

Steve Armstrong died in 2005, the same year that the state Supreme Court overturned Ralph Armstrong's conviction on other grounds. He was awaiting retrial when the revelations about his brother came to light.

My article promoted an outraged reaction — but not the sort you might expect.

"Sure we've had our share of mistaken convictions and overzealous prosecution in Dane County, but this is one [case] where people need to tread carefully," wrote one poster on Forum. "What I see is Leuders [real accuracy buff here] being used by Armstrong's defense attorneys in a PR campaign to make Armstrong look like a victim of a corrupt DA.... Shame on you Leuders and shame on Isthmus." Other respondents voiced similar criticisms.

In late July, Reserve Judge Robert Kinney, having heard the allegations against Norsetter, as well as a vigorous defense of his actions by the state, agreed that "a series of conscious decisions" had tainted the conviction beyond redemption. He dismissed the charges, a decision the DA's office has decided not to appeal.

Ralph Armstrong, who has always maintained his innocence (even though it's meant a longer sentence), is on his way to becoming a free man, due to prosecutorial actions Isthmus was skewered for even mentioning.

I tell this story because it points to a larger issue, one that ought to concern the entire community.

Ordinary citizens and even political leaders rarely challenge the criminal justice system, no matter how often we're reminded of its fallibility. Even folks who flock to public meetings on other local issues sit on their hands when it comes to prosecutors and police.

It's a real problem.

Already, we give these people vast powers — to arrest, to prosecute, to overlook transgression, to deprive of liberty — and immunize them from most lawsuits when they screw up. And then, on top of that, we spare them the bother of having to explain themselves. Indeed, the most common public reaction to allegations of injustice is to reflexively defend the system, as though it were too fragile to withstand scrutiny.

In announcing that it was not appealing Judge Kinney's decision, the Dane County District Attorney's Office issued a statement, which read in part:

"[The] record demonstrates that prosecuting attorneys and their colleagues in the Madison Police Department pursued this case in good faith at every stage of the process, and that any errors that occurred during the course of the investigation and prosecution were the product of innocent mistake or oversight."

That settles that. Thanks.

Except, as Columbo might say, for one little thing: Norsetter heard from a woman who said Steve Armstrong had credibly confessed, providing explicit details. He later ordered a DNA test that could not distinguish between brothers but used up the sample.

What makes the system so certain this was an innocent mistake?

Even if it were, that doesn't eliminate the need for answers and accountability. Where are the editorials from Neil Heinen and the dailies? Why hasn't noted local blogger Dave Cieslewicz weighed in?

Because the justice system always gets a pass. We snooze, we lose.

A decade ago I wrote several articles about a 15-year-old girl who was charged with a crime for slightly changing her account of a sexual assault. The person she accused was convicted of a crime. So was the girl's father, for calling her a slut and beating her up after the DA's charges were filed.

Dane County Judge Maryann Sumi dismissed the charge against the girl and chided the DA's office for bringing it. Then it was up to the community to respond. So far as I know, only one person did. Madison resident Moria Cue circulated a petition expressing outrage. She ultimately forced a high-level meeting with the DA's office, and I believe made it less likely that future rape victims will be treated this way.

We need police and prosecutors, and no community has more honorable people at the helm than Madison Police Chief Noble Wray and Dane County DA Brian Blanchard. But we also need citizens like Moria Cue, looking over their shoulders, asking for explanations.

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