Supeme Court Won't Decide Prosecutorial Misconduct Immunity Case

Terry Harrington and Curtis W. McGhee Jr. were wrongfully convicted of murder in Iowa and served 25 years. The Iowa Supreme Court vacated their convictions, saying the prosecutors failed to disclose exculpatory evidence of an alternative suspect.

The men then sued in federal court, also alleging the prosecutors had procured false testimony against them. They won on that claim, and the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, holding a prosecutor’s procurement of false testimony “violates a [criminal defendant’s] substantive due process rights.” The Supreme Court agreed to decide the case and heard oral arguments. The case was Pottawattamie County v. McGhee, 08-1065.

Now, a settlement has been reached. Harrington and McGhee will get $12 million, and the Supreme Court has dismissed the case, meaning no ruling will be forthcoming on whether prosecutors can claim personal immunity for such misdeeds. [More...]

McGhee and Harrington sued, saying that as prosecutors Richter and Hrvol had them arrested without probable cause, coerced and coached witnesses, fabricated evidence against them and concealed evidence that could have cleared them. They claimed authorities were eager to charge someone and that they were targeted because they are black.

...The high court was to decide whether that immunity stretched to the prosecutorial work that happens before the trial begins. Lower courts had said that it did not and had rejected the prosecutors' request to dismiss the lawsuits.

The actual question to be decided:

Whether a prosecutor may be subjected to a civil trial and potential damages for a wrongful conviction and incarceration where the prosecutor allegedly violated a criminal defendant’s “substantive due process” rights by procuring false testimony during the criminal investigation, and then introduced that same testimony against the criminal defendant at trial.

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    This was, relative to the immunity issue, (5.00 / 1) (#1)
    by scribe on Mon Jan 04, 2010 at 08:34:21 PM EST
    one of those "hard cases that make bad law".

    On the one hand, these guys were royally framed and should have recovered andthe prosecutors should have been hammered.  Legally speaking, of course.  On the other, and thankfully, the real cases of misconduct such as these are few and ar between.  In the past, I've defended enough civil cases brought against prosecutors to have recognized that few, if any, of them have any merit.  One plaintiff was honest enough to admit that he was prosecuting the case as much for his own entertainment as anything else.

    But the nature of an absolute immunity is also anathema to a system of law.  Absolute immunity, effectively, places the beneficiary of that immunity above the law.  In the few situations where an absolute immunity is granted by law, the beneficiaries of it (judges and prosecutors, mostly) have to be scrupulous to not place themselves in a position to abuse it or to be seen as abusing it.

    I think often of the two Pennsylvania judges who ran a scheme where they sent juveniles to jail for acts that weren't crimes, and took part in the profits of the private jail they sent the kids to.  That is a case where, in addition to prison time, those judges should have to pay.  In a just world, that is.  (Please note, though, that those judges tried to plead guilty to the federal charges pending against them, but the trial judge rejected the pleas and plea deals, and they are waiting trial.  They had not accepted responsibility for their actions, was the trial judge's reason.) The problem, though, is that the nature of our legal system is that in every case, someone walks away dissatisfied.  Often, everyone walks away dissatisfied.  We lawyers know that, but litigants might not be able to get their heads around it.  Those Pa. judges have been the beneficiaries of the absolute immunity even though any sense of justice would howl at it.  But, I can't see any way to protect an independent judiciary willing to make calls against popular sentiment or powerful people other than to give them an absolute immunity.

    IF anyone can come up with a better idea, I'm all ears.  But I don't think you will.  

    few and far between? (none / 0) (#4)
    by Abdul Abulbul Amir on Tue Jan 05, 2010 at 08:41:07 AM EST
     On the other, and thankfully, the real cases of misconduct such as these are few and far between.

    In fact, we have no way to know if this is true or not.  This case took 25 years to uncover.  If the two men falsely convicted had died in prison, then the misconduct would probably never have been discovered.

    The Nifong case was unusual in that there was a media spotlight and aggressive defense.  That combination is rare.


    who is actually paying the $12 million? (none / 0) (#2)
    by desmoinesdem on Mon Jan 04, 2010 at 09:59:12 PM EST
    The AP story says a settlement was reached with Pottawattamie County and the prosecutors. But I assume those prosecutors aren't chipping in a large portion of the $12 million. It looks like they got away with it.

    More like (none / 0) (#3)
    by jbindc on Tue Jan 05, 2010 at 08:20:50 AM EST
    The defense wasn't completely confident in their case and in what the Supreme Court might rule.  Of course, $12 million is hard to walk away from....

    Can't blame the two victims... (none / 0) (#6)
    by kdog on Tue Jan 05, 2010 at 10:26:45 AM EST
    for taking the cash.  I'd have had my fill of courtrooms too if I had gone through something so horrible.

    I'm not blaming them (none / 0) (#7)
    by jbindc on Tue Jan 05, 2010 at 10:32:49 AM EST
    But I'm saying if the defense thought they had a good enough case to win on the merits, and to set up a scenario where the prosecutors could be disbarred, they more than likely would have gone all the way.  Their clients would have still gotten lots of money somewhere in this. But my guess is, they don't feel they can win on the merits at the SC.

    It also doesn't hurt the lawyers either for a $12 million settlement.


    From your hometown paper... (none / 0) (#8)
    by MileHi Hawkeye on Tue Jan 05, 2010 at 12:21:18 PM EST
    Under the agreement, $7.03 million will go to Harrington and $4.97 million to McGhee, paid mostly by the county's insurance.



    Well, yeah (none / 0) (#9)
    by jbindc on Tue Jan 05, 2010 at 12:30:29 PM EST
    It was the county who decided to settle the case - not the individual prosecutors.

    Well, it is a civil suit anyway. (none / 0) (#5)
    by nyrias on Tue Jan 05, 2010 at 09:51:09 AM EST
    The question is whether the prosecutors can be disbarred from this.