The following opinion by Alanah Odoms Hebert was published by the New Orleans Times-Picayune on August 3, 2018.
When prosecutors prioritize winning convictions over advancing justice and ensuring fair trials, they risk convicting the innocent. Time and time again in Louisiana, innocent lives have been destroyed by wrongful convictions, while the prosecutors responsible have evaded accountability.
John Thompson spent 18 years in prison, 14 of those on death row, before blood test results withheld by prosecutors proving his innocence were uncovered. Reginald Adams spent 34 years in prison before a police report implicating another man came to light. Robert Jones spent 23 years in prison before evidence of his innocence undermining the state's case was found buried in prosecution files.
Of the 52 Louisiana exonerations listed in the national registry of exonerations, 75 percent involved official misconduct. If not for this misconduct, 39 people may not have been wrongfully convicted.
Thompson, Adams and Jones were each taken from their families as young men and robbed of their dreams and the lives they could have led. They spent decades fighting for their freedom, proving that prosecutors used false testimony, fabricated evidence, withheld evidence and inflamed the jury with improper arguments to seal their convictions.
No prosecutor has been sanctioned for the egregious misconduct in these cases even though 75 collective years, 27,375 days of freedom, and countless opportunities were stolen from them.
While the U.S. Supreme Court has long invoked professional discipline, including sanctions, suspension and disbarment as the incentive for prosecutors to avoid corrupt conduct, our state Supreme Court largely has given prosecutors a free pass. Only one prosecutor has been sanctioned for misconduct in Louisiana, but even that discipline was a mere slap on the wrist: a three-month suspension from the practice of law that was deferred entirely even though he put another man's life in jeopardy in a death penalty case.
Right now, in a case regarding the wrongful conviction of Michael Williams, the Louisiana Supreme Court has an opportunity to reverse course and send a message to prosecutors that they, too, must play by the rules to ensure justice and fairness.
Williams spent 16 years in prison before evidence discrediting the state's only witness surfaced from the prosecutor's file. Once the witness' changing, wildly inconsistent statements came to light, the charge against Williams was dismissed and he was freed. Williams' attorney urged the Office of the Disciplinary Counsel to hold the prosecutor, Ken Dohre, accountable for his misconduct. The Hearing Committee recognized the grave injustice caused by Dohre and suspended him from practice of law for a year and a day. Dohre appealed to the Attorney Disciplinary Board, and his case is now before the Supreme Court.
The court must not give Dohre a pass for his misconduct that directly caused an innocent man to go to prison for 16 years. He wielded great authority and abused it by flouting the rules of fair play to win. The appropriate punishment for Dohre -- suspension of his law license for one year and a day -- pales in comparison to the psychological, emotional and physical harm Williams suffered in prison.
When prosecutorial misconduct goes unpunished and prosecutors suffer no consequences for flouting the rules, the incentive to avoid misconduct withers, and the likelihood of wrongful convictions soars.
The Supreme Court should exercise its oversight muscle when prosecutorial misconduct causes harm. Prosecutors often speak about the deterrence value of securing convictions, but where is the deterrence for prosecutors if they are never punished for their misconduct?
Prosecutors' unchecked power to win at all costs must not remain unchecked. Innocent lives are at stake.
Alanah Odoms Hebert is executive director of ACLU Louisiana.