Tuesday, May 14, 2013
Prosecutors who have committed Brady violations, even those which have been later demonstrated to have resulted in wrongful convictions and lengthy terms of imprisonment for persons later proven innocent, are rarely prosecuted. Courts tend to find Brady violations inconsequential, prosecutor's offices generally defend or at the least refuse to acknowledge them, disciplinary committees overlook them, and defense lawyers, out of timidity and self-interest, rarely press for sanctions. One notable exception to this general disregard by institutions and the bar is DOJ's commendable effort, at the moment thwarted by a questionable administrative law decision, to sanction prosecutors in the Senator Ted Stevens trial (see here and here).
The State of Texas, whose criminal justice system is often disparaged by commentators and defense lawyers, recently took a giant step in holding prosecutors sanctionable for egregious Brady violations. A Texas judge, acting as a court of inquiry, under Texas law, after a hearing ordered the arrest of a current Texas state court judge, Ken Anderson, for contempt and withholding evidence from the court and defense attorneys when Anderson was a District Attorney prosecuting Michael Morton, who was recently demonstrated to be actually innocent for the murder of his wife for which he served 25 years of a life sentence. See here.
The inquiry judge, District Judge Louis Sturns, found probable cause to believe that Anderson had concealed two crucial pieces of evidence: a statement by Morton's three-year old son that Morton was not home at the time of the crime and a police report which revealed that an unknown suspicious man had been seen on several occasions stalking the Morton house.
For denying to the trial judge that there was exculpatory evidence and for failing to provide a full copy of a police report demanded by the judge, Anderson was charged with tampering with evidence, tampering with a government document, and contempt. The most serious charge, evidence tampering, carries a maximum prison term of ten years, far short of the 25 years Morton served.
Criminal prosecution of prosecutors for Brady violations has been to my knowledge totally or almost totally nonexistent. Thirty-five years ago I drafted a proposed New York State statute criminalizing intentional and knowing Brady violations. As expected, the proposal went nowhere. The statute, as I wrote it, had such strict scienter requirements that the crime was virtually unprovable. It was written more to stress to prosecutors the seriousness of such misconduct than to lead to actual prosecutions. The Anderson prosecution, if it occurs, may fill that function.