Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Van de Kamp decision undercuts accountability

A few days ago, the Supreme Court rendered an opinion in the case of Van de Kamp v. Goldstein. The case revolved around the sharing of information between prosecutors and public defenders, and whether a prosecutor who failed to share potentially exculpatory evidence with a public defender is vulnerable to damage liability.

The SCOUTUSwiki has the background and a good analysis of the opinion written by Lyle Denniston. In part:

The case of Van de Kamp v. Goldstein (07-854) involved a plea to the Court by a former chief prosecutor in Los Angeles, John Van de Kamp, and his chief deputy, Curt Livesay. They were seeking to head off a civil rights damages lawsuit by a man who had been prosecuted and convicted of murder in 1980. That conviction had been based in part upon the testimony of a jailhouse informant about a confession to the murder by Thomas Lee Goldstein.

After Goldstein served 24 years in prison, he was released based upon a court finding that the jailhouse informant had been given favorable treatment for his information, but that fact was never shared — as it should have been — with Goldstein’s defense lawyer. Goldstein then brought his civil rights lawsuit, claiming that some prosecutors knew about the informant’s favorable treatment, but the word did not get passed to defense counsel, mainly because the leaders of the office failed to train line prosecutors to share such information, failed to supervise the line attorneys, and failed to create a system for retaining and sharing information about informants. (emphasis added)

And to answer the "So what?" question, "The Court’s ruling continued a process that began in 1976, in Imbler v. Pachtman. In that decision, the Court said that, just as judges, jurors and legislators need absolute immunity to damage liability in order to perform their duties without facing harassing litigation against them, so do prosecutors."

Without disagreeing with too much precedent, I feel there are very good arguments to be made on the other side of this issue. For example, if the goal is to protect all of those parties from harassing litigation, why not make an effort to distinguish when litigation is frivolous and harassing (and when it is appropriate), rather than toss out the litigating baby with the bathwater?

It can't be the case that prosecutors enjoy total immunity, and it's not. (The Court makes a distinction between administrative and court-related activities, the former alone enjoying immunity.) But, in this case, the Court seems to have faulted, and here is why I think that's so: The negligence – or purposeful obfuscation, take your pick – of the prosecutor Van de Kamp in this case was found to be enough to overturn a man's conviction and release him from his sentence after he had served 24 years. That evidences to me that, even if this were a careless slip-up, it was one that was consequential enough that it would have changed the course of trial if it were known back then.

Second, Goldstein had been wrongfully incarcerated for 24 years before he was released. Most people would agree he is entitled to compensation. Goldstein has already tried to sue for damages the most appropriate target. What recourse has he left?

Jailhouse snitches are a notoriously unreliable source of information. See our page here on other ways to prevent wrongful convictions in the first place.

Visit IPF's Website here; sign up to volunteer here; contribute to our work here.

No comments: