No accountability for authority
A little tiny piece of good news about an otherwise depressing subject:
Today in Texas, former prosecutor and judge Ken Anderson pled guilty to intentionally failing to disclose evidence in a case that sent an innocent man, Michael Morton, to prison for the murder of his wife. When trying the case as a prosecutor, Anderson possessed evidence that may have cleared Morton, including statements from the crime's only eyewitness that Morton wasn't the culprit. Anderson sat on this evidence, and then watched Morton get convicted. While Morton remained in prison for the next 25 years, Anderson's career flourished, and he eventually became a judge.
As the article goes on to discuss at some length, this is an incredibly rare occurrence. We simply do not punish government officials who knowingly put innocent people in jail. In fact, we often reward them, even after it's known that they did what they did.
In today's deal, Anderson pled to criminal contempt, and will have to give up his law license, perform 500 hours of community service, and spend 10 days in jail. Anderson had already resigned in September from his position on the Texas bench.
What makes today's plea newsworthy is not that Anderson engaged in misconduct that sent an innocent man to prison. Indeed, while most prosecutors and police officers are ethical and take their constitutional obligations seriously, government misconduct--including disclosure breaches known as Brady violations--occurs so frequently that it has become one of the chief causes of wrongful conviction.
What's newsworthy and novel about today's plea is that a prosecutor was actually punished in a meaningful way for his transgressions.
I think a lot of this stems from our culture's celebration of government using whatever means possible to imprison "bad guys" (the smug "they got Al Capone on income tax evasion" thing.) And what that translates to is a belief that they must be guilty of something or the prosecutors wouldn't have done what they did. And sometimes they are guilty of something but the government can't prove it. So they make something up. Which isn't justice.
And just as often they simply want to close cases and win prosecutions and they either don't care or refuse to believe they're wrong. In some cases, these prosecutors and police are simply corrupt. And yet we have decided that it's better to simply release the victims of these wrongful prosecutions and, at best, compensate them with some money for their trouble. Apparently, it was decided that punishing corrupt and negligent authorities was not going to be part of our system of justice.
Rogue cops and prosecutors going unpunished is the rule rather than the exception. In Illinois, two police officers whose improperly grueling interrogation techniques led to the wrongful conviction of Juan Rivera and others were not penalized when their 3rd degree tactics came to light. Rather, they were recently hired at taxpayer expense to teach interrogation courses to other police officers around the state.
I think the rationale for this is the same one they use for failing to punish the CIA torturers --- if we prosecute them they will be unwilling to take chances in the future and then criminals/terrorists will kill us all in our beds. This has always struck me as a fairly insulting indictment of public servants who take oaths to our constitution. It implies that unless they are given immunity in advance from any accountability they will refuse to do their job to protect and serve. And frankly, I don't think that's fair to them. Indeed, what's happened is the opposite: there's no advantage to being a straight arrow and following the rules so the incentives go the other way.
A recent study found prosecutorial misconduct in nearly one-quarter of all capital cases in Arizona. Only two of those prosecutors have been reprimanded or punished. This led the Arizona Republic to conclude:
There seldom are consequences for prosecutors, regardless of whether the miscarriage of justice occurred because of ineptness or misconduct. In fact, they are often congratulated.
This is a sickness throughout our culture. Government authorities at all levels, from the cops who overuse the taser because they know there will be no ramifications if their torture leaves no mark to the top Justice Department torture advocates who are now feted as "experts" and heroes, there is little accountability. And it tars all the ones who do follow the rules of the constitution and just plain human decency with the same taint.