Friday, April 6, 2012

Prosecutorial Misconduct, the Michael Morton Case, and Lessons Learned

[Photo of Lady Justice from wikipedia]
Did you see the C.B.S. 60 Minutes segment last week about a wrongly convicted man named Michael Morton?  Well, you should have seen it! This story was incredible! This poor man has recently been freed from a Texas prison, after serving 25 years for a crime he did not commit.  The horrible crime was the murder of his wife. His liberators included criminal attorney Barry Scheck and the Innocence Project, which helped clear Morton through DNA testing which was unavailable when he was convicted. Fortunately, police now also reportedly know who actually committed the murder.

But the point of this post involves one of the primary reasons why Mr. Morton was wrongly convicted in the first place.  According to the news report, back in 1987, when the case was tried, the prosecutor allegedly withheld key investigative reports from the defense.  (This allegation, which is reportedly being made against the former D.A., who is now a judge, is still under investigation).  One of the alleged withheld reports involved an interview of the grandmother of the Mortons' little boy, who was at home when his mom was tragically murdered.  In the report, the young child reportedly told his grandmother that the killer had a mustache, (which Mr. Morton did not have), and that this dad was not home at the time of the murder.  Again, this evidence was reportedly withheld from the defense.  

In fairness to the former D.A., he contends that he told the defense attorney about the report.  In other words, this question (about whether or not the report was turned over), is in dispute.  But don't you see how wrong it was if the D.A., in such a case, did not turn over such exculpatory evidence to the defense?

Here is my proposed solution to this serious problem:  I believe that prosecutors everywhere should generally be required to turn over ALL investigative reports to criminal defense attorneys.  Look, I know this solution can work!  As a former state and federal prosecutor, for over 26 years, I generally always followed an "open file" discovery policy in all criminal cases, (with limited exceptions for confidential informants' identities, or other sensitive matters, such as victims' addresses or telephone numbers).  In short, sometimes the procedural rules may not have required full disclosure, but I preferred to follow a "show and tell" policy of everything in my file.

Prosecutors should realize that, by being more open in discovery, they not only are doing the right thing, but also they will quickly get more guilty pleas, because the defendant will more clearly see you've got them when you show them "what you got!"

But, over the years, I have seen some short-sighted prosecutors who appear to want to hide their files from the defense.  As an Augusta, Georgia criminal defense lawyer, I have learned that obtaining discovery from an overly zealous prosecutor can be like pulling teeth with pliers!  This is wrong!  And it can lead to wrongful convictions, as in the Morton case!

I was an aggressive prosecutor who zealously represented crime victims' rights!  Trust me, I was no bleeding heart!  But I also tried to always remember that, it is the prosecutor's role, as former Supreme Court Justice Sutherland described it, to "strike hard blows, but not foul ones."  In short, if the evidence is on your side, you can still try hard to win, but it won't hurt for the D.A. to help ensure a fair trial, and a level playing field, by turning over ALL the evidence to the defense attorney!  

Then, maybe we wouldn't have to look back, 25 years later, and wonder -- what else should have done to ensure this poor man a fair trial?

What do you think?

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for joining in the hop and for your bloggy friendship