Friday, March 30, 2012

Michael Morton, John Thompson highlight prosecutor misconduct forum

It was a privilege to meet exonerees Michael Morton and John Thompson in person at yesterday's UT law school event on prosecutorial oversight. It's an incredible honor that my job with the Innocence Project of Texas affords me the chance to meet so many exonerees, and I'm always especially humbled by those like Thompson who've endured this sort of life tragedy and react by attempting to improve the system that betrayed him. He struck me as an energetic reformer and a good guy.

Though both men have endured unspeakable nightmares, in Mr. Thompson's case the courts added insult to injury. Louisiana doesn't have a compensation law for exonerees like we passed in Texas. So after he was framed by the New Orleans DA's office, spent 18 years in prison (14 on death row), then was exonerated thanks to DNA and exculpatory evidence concealed at his first trial, Mr. Thompson filed a federal civil rights suit, winning a $14 million verdict which was affirmed by the Fifth Circuit, only to have it overturned by the US Supreme Court in Connick v. Thompson last year. (See Prof. Jennifer Laurin's description for more detail.) That compensation law is one thing Texas does right compared to other states.

The event was informative, but I also agree with local attorney Don Dickson who sat next to me and wrote on Facebook that "The presentation itself was kinda discouraging. It's very clear that the difficulty of addressing prosecutorial misconduct is surpassed only by the difficulty in discovering it in the first place." That's particularly true of so-called Brady violations, or failures to disclose exculpatory evidence, where the defense and judges cannot as a practical matter know what prosecutors have hidden from them. Of course, I do think there are things that can be done legislatively to retard if not eliminate prosecutorial misconduct, but in the wake of Connick v. Thompson, the existing landscape on oversight of prosecutors is pretty bleak.

I'll write up my own notes from the event over the weekend, but here's some of the initial MSM coverage from yesterday's forum, most of which so far has focused on Michael Morton's case as opposed to the broader issues, as well as a two-part interview with Michael Morton in the Austin Statesman:
The Texas Tribune and the Austin Chronicle should also have coverage before long, since Brandi Grissom and Jordan Smith were both at the event; I'll link to those when they're up.


Phillip Baker said...

I attended this event, though I really had no great hopes of hearing anything groundbreaking. I didn't. The panelists were all dedicated, honorable, ethical men and women who commitment to justice under the law is beyond doubt. But the talk was theoretical, not practical. Lots of talk of educating DA's and their staffs across Texas, and relying upon these now-trained folks to self-police the office. In a perfect world maybe, but if the DA is the source of the problem, good luck with any real change. Same with electing DA's and judges- glossed over. As long as key players in our justice system remain politicians, not much is going yo change. Despite the high minded declarations that elections do not sway judicial decisions, judges and DA's still have a base to satisfy, have to fraise money in the same groveling way as any other politician. And now we have the super-rich pouring their money into buying whole courts across the country.

So, SCOTUS gives DA's almost absolute immunity from civil action for their acts in office. The State Bar is a toothless joke, as we already knew. Same with the Commission on Judicial Conduct. And powerful backers can keep even dirty DA's and judges in office.

Is there any hope of change? Not much. But if the stream of glaring mistakes and misdeeds of our justice system continue, maybe ordinary people will finally say "Enough!". But don't bet on that either. Texans know- and glory in- the harshness, even barbarity of our prison system. The myth of "coddling: prisoners is alive and well.

Thank god for those few who are working for change- Sen Rodney Ellis, Sen Whitmire, and others.

Thomas R. Griffith said...

Hey Grits, thanks for taking time to go to the event and we are looking forward to reading about your additional notes.

Until then, if I may point out in addition to your observation of zoning in vs. the "broader issues" - It's my duty to remind folks that there wasn't one single speaker that spoke about the Historically Ignored cases. The Non-DNA Closed / Inactive claims. Nor anything mentioned about the wide spread abuses of the Play Bargain Games conducted just because defendants are on probation at time of arrest. Not one word about the law allowing the unqualified (ex; Divorce Estate / Will specialist) to act like real CDLs for the day, participate in voir dire, file pre trial motions 30 days before trial, file ready for trial motions despite none of the motions being Approved or Denied, only to plea bargain at lunch recess. Zip, nadda.

As the Tour continues across the nation, maybe someone will grow a pair and let the audence in on the fact that it's not about *one person, *one area of prosecutorial crimes, *one type of exclupatory evidence hidden or proving ones innocence.

IMHO - It's about the Supreme Court (attorneys / lawyers) creating the plea bargain system. The blatant void of Prosecutorial Oversight of decades past that's given birth to convictions obtained via plea bargain abuses; inticing both sides to play games vs. letting the jury do it's job. When they do allow it to go all the way to verdict, the jury is hoodwinked into thinking they've been presented with 'all' the eveidence while the lazy ass judges look the other way. It's about the taxpayers being or allowing themselves to be ripped off at the voters expense.

None of this could happen if the defense simply refused to participate & the if the court did it duties, therefore the 'Tour' should be re-titled to place 'Oversight' on the entire system.

But as the sad old saying continues to make ears bleed, it's a start. Thanks.

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