Monday, January 4, 2010

No answer is better than the wrong answer

Those of us who were waiting for the US Supreme Court to tell prosecutors they could be sued in civil court for fabricating evidence to gain convictions against innocent defendants will have to wait a little longer.  I wrote about this case from Iowa back in November.  Two men were trying to sue the Iowa prosecutors who had told the key witness against them what to say at trial.  It was all a lie and 20 years later, the two guys were exonerated, so the two guys wanted the prosecutors to have to compensate them.  Not an unreasonable request, if you ask me.  The prosecutors claimed absolute immunity, arguing that they should not be able to face civil liability for any actions they undertook as part of their official prosecutorial duties.  Allowing prosecutors to be sued for fabricating evidence would have a chilling effect on prosecutors who might not feel free to do their jobs, they claimed with a straight face.

The argument left me (and others like me, I hope) scratching my head as to how fabricating evidence could possibly be considered a legitimate prosecutorial function.  If prosecutors think that's properly a part of the job, well, I want them to be chilled.  Reading the transcript of that oral argument left me worried that we wouldn't get such a clear answer from the Supreme Court, who seemed a little too worried about constraining prosecutors.  (Once again, I have to scratch my head as I ponder who the hell doesn't want to constrain prosecutors in this way?  I want to give them every disincentive possible to make sure they don't FABRICATE EVIDENCE!!!)

But now we may never know how the Supremes were going to come down on this obvious, no-brainer of a question because the parties today agreed to dismiss the case.  In the world of civil lawsuits, settlement negotiations are possible at any point in the litigation.  It's certainly not unusual here for civil cases on appeal to get settled before the appellate court hears argument.  And this case was a civil case.  But settlements are highly unusual in the criminal world.  I only have personal knowledge of one criminal case that was settled while the appeal was pending.  So for me, as a follower of criminal cases, it's a tad unsettling not to have the interesting legal question answered by the court.  The Dread Pirate Roberts would tell me to get used to disappointment.  Certainly, I would rather have no official court answer at all than the wrong one.  (The wrong answer would be that prosecutors have absolute immunity from civil suit because when they fabricate evidence and use it at trial to convict an innocent defendant, that defendant ought to be able to sue them in court for everything those crooked SOBs have.)

I'm sure these two wronged men wouldn't have settled without receiving some concession.  ($12 million between the two of them according to the press release.)  And it's really not their job to set good precedent for the rest of the nation.  Perhaps their attorneys had the same pessimistic view of that argument that I did, in which case settling now is a good call.  Still, I can't help but wish that the answer that seems so very obvious to me won't just be answered the way I think it should be now.  Instead, prosecutors around the nation might still think they can fabricate evidence and use it at trial to convict innocent defendants without fear of reprisal.

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