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U.S. Supreme Court

High Court to Consider Prosecutor Immunity for Using False Testimony

Posted Apr 20, 2009 10:17 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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The U.S. Supreme Court has decided to hear a case involving prosecutor immunity from lawsuits for procuring false evidence in a criminal investigation and then using it at trial.

The case, Pottawattamie County v. Harrington, represents “a significant new test case on prosecutors’ immunity,” SCOTUSblog reports.

The case was brought by two black teens imprisoned for 25 years after they were convicted of killing a retired, white police officer, the Des Moines Register reports. The Iowa Supreme Court overturned the convictions because police withheld evidence of a more likely suspect.

In a civil suit, Terry Harrington and Curtis McGhee Jr. claim prosecutors coached witnesses to lie and concealed evidence, the story says. The case involves a distinction between absolute immunity, conferred for prosecutor errors during trial, and limited immunity that applies during the investigative phase of a case.

A federal judge ruled in the case that former Pottawattamie County Attorney David Richter and his then-deputy, Joseph Hrvol, were not entitled to absolute immunity because false evidence used at trial was gathered during the investigative phase of the case, when limited immunity applied.

The implications of the case depend on your point of view, according to the Des Moines Register. “It either would prevent those who are wrongly convicted of crimes by deceitful prosecutors from recovering damages through civil suits, or it would put prosecutors in a weakened position, based on the fear of having to suffer for mistakes made while fulfilling their duty to protect the public.”

In another immunity ruling earlier this year, the Supreme Court sided with prosecutors. The court ruled in Van de Kamp v. Goldstein that prosecutors are entitled to absolute immunity from suits for mistakes in cases they supervise.

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