Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Is it time we do something about prosecutorial abuse?

The following editorial was published in the Beaufort Observer on February 22, 2010.

"It's better for ten guilty men to go free than for one innocent man to go to jail."

Greg Taylor went free last week, after 17 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. And most will recall Alan Gell who, like Greg Taylor was sent to prison for a crime for which he was not guilty. Both were victims of bad prosecutions. And of course there is always Mike Nifong, of Duke lacrosse infamy.

And now we have yet another local case in Pitt County.

All of these cases involved prosecutorial abuse. And taken together they leave a lingering question: What should be done when law enforcement and judicial officials perform badly?

Prosecutors have traditionally been afforded immunity from prosecution even for misconduct in office, except in very rare cases. Those "rare cases" are in fact so rare they almost never happen. But it seems that in recent years the rarity of instances of prosecutorial abuse are becoming not so rare.

We believe Nifong was treated appropriately by "the system." He was removed from office and will never be able to serve as a prosecutor again. But what about the prosecutors of Alan Gell? They were given a slap on the wrist by the bar association, probably to pacify more than anything else and we have heard nothing about what will happen to the SBI agents and their superiors who knew about the exclusion of information in their lab work. That many of them are long gone, after 17 years, is not sufficient to not address the problem.

We think the time has come for the legislature to address the issue. We're not sure exactly what the action should be but to be sure there are those much smarter than we are that can divine the proper line between abuse of prosecutorial power and honest mistakes made by well meaning solicitors.

We believe punishment for willful prosecutorial abuse should be the same as that which the prosecutor seeks to impose on the victim. It certainly should be serious enough to deter abuse. And we would reserve a lesser, but still very severe penalty for malfeasance by a prosecutor. Ban them from the practice of law, just as we feel doctors guilty of malpractice should be banned from the practice of medicine.

Again, we don't claim to have all the answer to the bramble of issues involved, but we do think that the current state of affairs, no pun intended, is unacceptable and it is time for the legislature to tackle the problem. Prosecutors are not above the law they seek to impose of the rest of us.

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