Supreme Court to weigh if framing suspects worse than frivolous lawsuits
By Kathleen Miller
WASHINGTON--Lawyers representing an Iowa county will argue before the Supreme Court this fall that local prosecutors said to have fabricated evidence in a murder case can't be sued because they "have absolute immunity at trial."
Stephen Davis, the attorney for one of the men who spent 25 years behind bars, told Raw Story he had "pretty much assumed" that the Constitution protected his clients if there was prosecutorial misconduct. "I guess it's controversial," he added.
In 1978, Iowa teenagers Curtis McGhee Jr. and Terry Harrington were sentenced to life imprisonment after being convicted of murdering a security guard. After serving more than two decades, both men were released after Harrington obtained "previously undisclosed reports from the Council Bluffs Police Department that pointed to the existence of another suspect for the murder," according to court documents.
The two men claim that in investigating the murder, Pottawattamie County prosecutors had coerced a witness to implicate them, "disregarded obviously false details" of the witness's accounts, "coached" the witness to give an account more consistent with the known facts of the case and then "coerced" other false witness testimony to corroborate that account.
County prosecutors, however, invoked "prosecutorial immunity," a concept University of Iowa College of Law Professor Todd Pettys described to Raw Story as "this notion that no matter what a prosecutor does at trial they can't be sued."
"Prosecutors are easy targets, and the courts believe that if they did not have this rule, prosecutors would have to defend themselves all the time against people who are looking to make their lives miserable," Pettys told Raw Story.
Steve Sanders, the attorney who represents Pottawattamie County, told Raw Story that "the basic proposition is that although this could occasionally mean a prosecutor could commit misconduct and a defendant couldn't sue, it's better to accept that than to subject prosecutors to lawsuits each time they convict someone."
Other counties have joined Pottawattamie in arguing to protect the prosecutors.
"This could almost have a chilling effect on prosecutors performing their function," Paul Castiglione, assistant state's attorney for Illinois' Cook County, told Raw Story. "We want the prosecutors to be able to perform their function, decide issues on the merits and not whether someone may sue them depending on how the criminal case goes."
According to Sanders, it all comes down to the fact that the "constitutional injury" alleged by McGhee, occurred in the midst of the trial. Even if the evidence was fabricated, Sanders says, it couldn't have hurt either McGhee or Harrington if the attorneys had "put it in a drawer." Sanders says the only claim the defendants have to "constitutional injury" is the fact that they were convicted because of the allegedly fake evidence and served time in prison.
"That injury then, by definition, occurred at a trial," Sanders told Raw Story. "And, regardless of whether that evidence was fabricated, prosecutors have absolute immunity at trial."
McGhee's attorney Davis, however, dismissed that line of argument as "just foolishness."
"There is no legitimate government purpose served by having police or prosecutors fabricating evidence against Americans," Davis told Raw Story.
Steven Shapiro, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, is siding with McGhee's attorney: Shapiro told reporters Tuesday the case represents a "classic Catch-22 that effectively denies the victims of prosecutorial misconduct any opportunity to obtain meaningful redress."
The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments on the case November 4th.