Thursday, November 12, 2009

Editorial: Prosecutor misconduct has a high public cost

The following op-ed was published by the San Jose, CA Mercury-News on November 11, 2009.

Prosecutor misconduct has a high public cost

By Kathleen 'Cookie' Ridolfi and Maurice Possley

Special to the Mercury News
Posted: 11/11/2009 08:00:00 PM PST

For the fourth time in as many years, Santa Clara County residents must cough up hundreds of thousands of their tax dollars due to allegations of prosecutorial misconduct.

Last month, the county authorized paying $750,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by Donna Auguste, whose Colorado home was illegally searched by police six years ago. As the citizens of Santa Clara County feel the sting of the $750,000 settlement, they should realize that this is not an isolated instance. It raises the cost to taxpayers due to prosecutorial misconduct accusations since 2005 to more than $5 million.

Earlier this year, the county forked over $1 million to settle a lawsuit alleging, in part, prosecutorial misconduct brought by Jeffrey Rodriguez, who was wrongfully convicted and released after five years in prison.

Two years ago, the county settled a similar suit brought by Rick Walker, who served 12 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. Santa Clara County paid $1.3 million in taxpayer dollars on top of $1.45 million paid by the county's insurance carrier. The state of California paid an additional $409,500 to compensate him for the 12 years he lost.

In 2005, the county paid nearly $1 million to Glen Nickerson, who spent nearly 19 years behind bars before his murder conviction was overturned following evidence of police and prosecutorial misconduct.

Remarkably, not a single prosecutor faced discipline in these prosecutions, with the exception of Santa Clara County prosecutor Ben Field. Field, who orchestrated the illegal search in the Auguste case and whose multiple prosecutorial misdeeds have been exposed by the Mercury News, has been ordered to surrender his law license for four years.

But the cost of prosecutorial misconduct goes far beyond the dollars removed from taxpayer wallets.

Donna Auguste, for example, spent $900,000 to free her nephew. There is the cost of the hundreds of hours racked up by attorneys in the office of Santa Clara County Counsel who defended the lawsuit. This is time that could have been spent on other matters of importance to the citizenry.

And what price do you put on the more than 40 years that Walker, Nickerson, Rodriguez and Damon Auguste spent behind bars before they were exonerated? The cost of housing them alone is more than $1 million. The personal cost to these men cannot be quantified. Those years are gone.

Perhaps most significant is the immeasurable cost and risk to society of having the real perpetrators still out there.

Prosecutors rarely suffer personal consequences for engaging in misconduct. They have absolute immunity for their official conduct as advocates, and when acting as investigators, they can be held liable for their misconduct only if it violates the law.

A recent study by the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice examined California appellate court rulings and found that during the ten year period ending in 2007, prosecutors committed misconduct in 444 cases, yet only two were disciplined. Thirty of them committed misconduct more than once. Two of them did it three times. Virtually all of these prosecutors walked away unscathed.

In these difficult economic times, taxpayers might well wonder if they can continue to spend this kind of money to support a criminal justice system that allows prosecutors to avoid personal responsibility, innocent defendants to be locked up, and true criminals to go free. But this is not a decision that should be based solely on dollars, no matter what the economy is doing.

Too much is at stake.

KATHLEEN RIDOLFI is executive director of the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara University School of Law. MAURICE POSSLEY, a Pulitzer Prize winning former investigative reporter for the Chicago Tribune, is an investigator and researcher with the project. They wrote this article for the Mercury News.


JUSTICE1st said...

I couldn't agree more with this editorial, and I only wish we could come up with more ways to hold prosecutors who commit acts of misconduct accountable. One would think that the good prosecutors, those who DO uphold the law and don't commit misconduct, would go after the bad ones who tarnish their good name. It is astounding to me, not to mention appalling, that they don't seem to want to.

Prosecutorial misconduct isn't unique to California, it is a serious problem across the nation. Many innocent defendants who are still in prison because of it have very little hope, if any, of being released, especially those for whom DNA was never part of their cases. According to the book ACTUAL INNOCENCE, many of these defendants had bad defense attorneys who either didn't have the skill or the spirit to defend their clients properly, yet it is extremely difficult to raise the issue of ineffective assistance of counsel in an appeal or a Writ of Habeas Corpus after a wrongful conviction has occurred.

For all these reasons and more, I believe average citizens need to educate themselves about the criminal justice system as much as possible. We never know when we might really need that valuable information. There are many books out there which can do that, so we have the advantage of knowledge if the worst ever happens. Articles like this one are an excellent start. Thanks for publishing it. :)

angry mom said...

Why isn't there someone who cares about the people who are sentenced to less time but are still innocent? Stop the misconduct of the judicial system at every level. An innocent person that has lost even 5 yrs. of their lives are still damaged and their record is forever tarnished.

Anonymous said...

The fact that prosecutorial misconduct goes unpunished is a significant injustice to society. Recently, Dolores Carr SCCDA has informed her entire staff to boycott Jude Bryan for her decision in reversing a conviction that was tainted by aggregious prosecutorial misconduct. I laud Judge Bryan! The SCC District Attorneys office must stop subverting justice. Our society and our laws were made to protect us. Our judicial system was made to protect us from tyranny and created to aid in our freedom in a democratic society.

not an FBI plant said...

A well founded fear of persecution is better than a get out of jail free card.

Refugees from the United States survive.
I've got to write a book- how to do it.

Judge Knot