Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Extent of Prosecutorial Immunity

Yesterday, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments regarding the reach of prosecutorial immunity. The Court is being asked to decide whether prosecutors can be held liable for actions leading to wrongful imprisonment through coerced testimony and fail to provide all relevant facts.

In 1978, Curtis W. McGhee Jr. and Terry Harrington were convicted of murdering a security guard who had previously been a police officer in Council Bluffs. The prosecutors in the case, Joseph Hrvol and David Richter, relied heavily on the testimony of a 16-year old witness; however, this witness had originally identified other suspects and originally reported incorrectly to police on several key aspects of the crime.

In 2003, McGhee and Harrington were released from prison after it became known that the prosecutors failed to reveal the fact that they had initially identified another individual as the suspected murderer. The individual in question had actually been seen near the crime scene, with a weapon similar to that used in the crime, and failed a polygraph relating to the crime. McGhee and Harrington also alleged that prosecutors had coerced witnesses into giving false testimony. These witnesses later recanted their testimony regarding the crime.

Prosecutors claim they need unqualified immunity in order to ensure their ability to perform their job functions properly. Prosecutors claim that this immunity needs to apply to trial work, as well as work performed prior to charging a suspect. Without such immunity, there is a fear that prosecutors would constantly be sued by convicted criminals.

McGhee’s and Harrington’s lawyer argued it unfair that police officers could be held liable for their pretrial wrongdoings, but prosecutors could not be. He also argued it inconsistent that prosecutors only have limited liability for violating a suspect’s Constitutional rights before trial, but could not be sued for using any manufactured testimony in court.

Prosecutorial immunity makes great sense in most instances. Every time a prosecutor is successful in his or her case, they do not want to have to worry about being sued. They must be able to rely on witness testimony when presenting their cases, and should not be held accountable for any wrongdoing they have no place in procuring.

However, in this case, the argument is that the prosecutors were the ones who hid evidence and aided in creating false testimony. They did not present a witness in good faith that later turned out to be lying; instead, they proffered a witness who had provided incorrect facts and identified other suspects. They ignored this information and hid the facts of the other suspect from the prosecutors and allegedly coerced witnesses to testify against the two individuals who were wrongfully imprisoned. But for the actions of these prosecutors, these two individuals would most likely not have been convicted, or for that matter may not have been charged in the first place. In cases such as this, it is hard to see why these prosecutors should be granted prosecutorial immunity for acts they did not perform in good faith and the spirit of their positions.

For the full article from the Washington Post, click here.

For more information on the case of Pottawattamie County v. McGhee, click here.

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