The following editorial was published by the Washington Post on November 2, 2009.
The right not to be framed
Can prosecutors be sued?
Monday, November 2, 2009
"THERE IS NO Freestanding Constitutional 'Right Not To Be Framed.' " So states a brief filed by Iowa prosecutors hoping to persuade the Supreme Court to dismiss a lawsuit against them for allegedly fabricating evidence that led to the 25-year incarceration of two innocent men. It's a breathtaking proposition that the justices should roundly reject when they hear the case Wednesday.
According to court documents, the prosecutors took a leading role in 1977 in investigating the murder of a recently retired white police officer at an Iowa automobile dealership where he was working security. The prosecutors allegedly coaxed a witness to offer a version of events that implicated two African American men, Curtis W. McGhee Jr. and Terry J. Harrington; the witness gave several different statements over time and had trouble keeping his facts straight. Prosecutors also allegedly coerced other witnesses to lie and withheld evidence that pointed to a different culprit.
These contradictions and prosecutors' apparent hand in the alleged fabrications came to light years after the men were sentenced to life without parole when a prison barber made a public records request of police files in the case and came across exculpatory information that had been kept from defense lawyers. The witness ultimately recanted his story. Mr. Harrington's conviction was overturned by the Iowa Supreme Court, which concluded that the star witness was a "liar and perjurer," and Mr. Harrington was freed. Mr. McGhee petitioned for a new trial but ultimately entered a conditional guilty plea that allowed him to go free with time served.
Mr. McGhee and Mr. Harrington, who say that they were targeted because of their race, later sued the two prosecutors and the Iowa county that employed them, using a Reconstruction-era law that gives individuals the right to seek damages from government officials who knowingly deprive them of their constitutional rights. The prosecutors argue that they should be immune from such lawsuits and point to a line of Supreme Court cases that shield prosecutors from legal consequences when they carry out their duties. They argue that state and bar disciplinary structures are best able to deal with accusations of prosecutorial misconduct and that prosecutors will be chilled in doing their jobs if they worry about being sued for innocent missteps.
Prosecutors need to be able carry out their duties without fear that they'll become the targets of personal lawsuits if defendants are found not guilty or charges are dropped. But such lawsuits face high hurdles. The Supreme Court has recently -- and correctly -- made it even more difficult for plaintiffs to make officials personally liable unless there's convincing evidence that they were directly involved in knowingly violating a clearly established constitutional right. Mr. McGhee and Mr. Harrington have shouldered that burden and should be allowed to proceed with their case.
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.