Stevens Debacle Shows More Oversight of Prosecutors is Needed, Experts Say
Posted Apr 3, 2009 7:44 PM CDT
By Martha Neil
In the aftermath of a stunning reversal of fortune for once-victorious federal prosecutors in the political corruption case against former Sen. Ted Stevens, experts—and, it appears, the U.S. attorney general—are calling for increased attention to the issue of government misconduct in other cases.
The Alaska Republican's initial conviction, based on arguably false testimony uncontradicted by the prosecution, is not an isolated occurrence, according to former New Jersey attorney general John Farmer. Among other examples of prosecutorial misconduct throughout the country, he cites, in an op-ed piece in the New York Times, the infamous rape case brought against innocent Duke University men's lacrosse players.
The prosecutor's role, Farmer writes, "is not to seek the maximum penalty at every turn, nor to put together an impressive statistical tally of convictions. It is not to use the emotional pain and personal ruin involved on all sides of a criminal case to advance one’s own career or personal agenda. Prosecutors do not even share the duty defense lawyers have of providing zealous representation. The prosecutor’s only duty is to seek justice. Period."
Attorney General Eric Holder offered a similar view this week, after directing federal prosecutors to seek a reversal of Stevens' conviction:
“We have to be careful on how we indict these cases, how we investigate these cases, how we try them," he told Bloomberg yesterday in an interview in Mexico at a law enforcement conference. “We can have a huge impact on the lives of people, and particularly public officials who only have their good reputation.”
A needed first step toward national reform is for all federal and state prosecutors to fulfill their duty to disclose exculpatory evidence to the defense under the U.S. Supreme Court's 1963 decision in Brady v. Maryland, Ellen Yaroshefsky tells the ABA Journal. A clinical professor at Yeshiva University's Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, she is co-chair of the ABA Criminal Justice Section's Ethics, Gideon and Professionalism Committee.
Yaroshefsky calls for more specific ethical rules concerning prosecutors' obligations under the Brady case and the 1972 Supreme Court decision in Giglio v. United States concerning witness impeachment material. Additionally, increased training and oversight of prosecutors at all levels is needed, she says, as well as reasonable workloads for both prosecutors and public defenders.
Plus, in addition to discipline for prosecutors who violate the rules, there should also be recognition for prosecutors who voluntarily dismiss cases that lack merit, she suggests.
While many prosecutors already strive to do the right thing, others, because of ignorance or a win-at-any-cost attitude, do not disclose Brady material unless they believe failing to do so could change the outcome of the trial, Yaroshefsky says. This is wrong—yet an ineffective system for disciplining such prosecutors rarely holds them accountable.
"Holder should be commended for fairness and justice but this is the tip of the iceberg," she says of the botched case against Stevens. "You've really got to look at the entire culture that encourages lawyers not to abide by their fundamental ethical obligation."
ABAJournal.com: "U.S. Moves to Drop Charges Against Sen. Stevens"