Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Settling the Masters case

You may remember the case of Tim Masters in Colorado.  He became a suspect in a high-profile murder when he was just 15 (mostly because he drew scary pictures).  He was eventually convicted of that murder in 1999, after over a decade of living as a suspect.  Then in 2008, his conviction was reversed when DNA testing pointed to someone else.  Masters had also alleged police and prosecutorial misconduct, but I'm not sure those allegations were ever ruled on.  I would guess the DNA test results provided the court a convenient way to dodge those allegations.

Life after exoneration had been proving difficult for Mr. Masters, as I wrote about in that earlier blog post.  But as of this week, his inability to find a job won't have to destroy him financially.  He settled with the County that prosecuted him for $4.1 million.  A separate lawsuit against the city is still pending, so that might not be the end of Mr. Masters' financial compensation.  I've followed this case for many years and could not be more delighted for Mr. Masters that at least the financial hardships he had faced as an exoneree will be taken care of, even if he still must live with other hardships.

But this CNN article has one little detail that cannot go unmentioned.  Two of the prosecutors responsible for convicting Tim Masters of this murder he did not commit are now judges: Jolene Blair and Terence Gilmore.  And, by the way, they objected to the settlement because they wanted their day in court on this case.  Many in law enforcement in Ft. Collins still insist that Masters is responsible for the murder. 

The murder for which Masters was convicted was a pretty high-profile case.  Being able to close a case like that 12 years after the murder gets prosecutors noticed and puts them on the path to becoming judges.  I don't think it's a coincidence that two of Masters' prosecutors became judges after his conviction.  Their roles in securing that conviction undoubtedly played some role in getting them to the bench.  But they won't suffer any consequences when that conviction falls apart.  They won't pay out on this settlement themselves.  They won't be stripped of their robes.  Instead, they'll continue to sit in judgment of other defendants from their high perch, a perch which they climbed up to, at least in part, on the back of Tim Masters.  And they'll express strong disappointment that they didn't get their day in court to defend against this merit-less law suit.  (They didn't call it merit-less; I'm just guessing they think so because they wanted the chance to defend against it.)

Their faux outrage is lost on me, though.  Both Blair and Gilmore were rebuked by the state disciplinary authority in 2008.  Both Blair and Gilmore admitted they failed to turn over potentially exculpatory information.  I don't know exactly how the disciplinary process works in Colorado, but I can't imagine that process didn't include an opportunity for Blair and Gilmore to defend themselves, tell their side, and have their views heard.  In short, they got their day in court.  And they admitted to misconduct. 

I think it's wonderful when men like Tim Masters receive financial settlements for all they've suffered.  But I think it would also be nice if something more could come from this case and others like it.  I think it would be great if we could realize that we can probably find better judicial prospects than prosecutors who will commit misconduct to secure wrongful convictions.


Jeff Gamso said...

"I think it would be great if we could realize that we can probably find better judicial prospects than prosecutors who will commit misconduct to secure wrongful convictions."

Or even otherwise rightful ones.

I remember explaining to the court of appeals that the prosecutor lied to the jury and everyone in the courtroom - judge, prosecutor, defense counsel, court reporter, bailiffs - everyone except the jurors knew he was lying. Court of appeals never addressed the question, but did say that all errors were harmless since my client was guilty of the murder, which he may have been (though maybe not).

That prosecutor is now a judge. Of course.

S said...

Well, now you're just shooting for the moon! I used to be that optimistic, but I'm feeling discouraged lately. I will never understand why courts don't act more strongly when faced with obvious misconduct by prosecutors. It breaks my heart to realize that it's too much to hope that prosecutors will actually be held accountable in any meaningful way for Brady violations, Doyle violations, and all the other misdeeds they commit.

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