Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Prosecutorial misconduct in the Chicago Reich

Retired Judge H. Lee Sarokin:

I am always offended and annoyed with the labeling of some recent conduct or person with Nazism or Hitler or drawing analogies with the Holocaust and thereby belittling those horrific events in our history with some current less appalling and even minor occurrences. But I truly believe that the attempt of prosecutors to subpoena "the grades, grading criteria, class syllabus, expense reports and e-mail messages of their journalism students themselves" at Northwestern University warrants and deserves the Gestapo label.

It is a flagrant attempt to intimidate the Medill Innocence Project and other similar projects which have been so successful in overturning wrongful convictions. The alleged justification is that the prosecutors want to determine "whether students believed that they would receive better grades if witnesses they interviewed provided evidence to exonerate Mr. McKinney." So I take it that would mean that every time a detective obtained incriminating evidence, his entire background could be examined in order to determine his motives when interviewing a witness; whether he had received or expected a raise or a promotion; and if so whether he needed money; how much his debt was; what he was paying for rent and alimony, etc. In other words, the scope of the investigation would be extended to the motives of the investigator rather than the witness being investigated and interrogated.

Then there is the equally significant question of whether information directly relating to the guilt or innocence of the defendant can be sought from student journalists. Whether there is or should be a reporter's privilege has been the subject of great debate. If the prosecutor here were seeking incriminating (rather than exonerating) evidence derived from the student interviews, I would gladly withdraw my Gestapo label. At least in that instance, their purpose, but not necessarily their legal position, would be justified and acceptable. But the effort to investigate the students themselves warrants that label. The spokesperson for the prosecutor's office defends its actions:

"At the end of the day, all we're seeking is the same thing these students are: justice and truth." Rather it seems that they are trying to suppress the truth and subvert justice.

I'm all for actual criminals going to prison, but the judge is absolutely right and the prosecutor's office is fulla shit. Prosecutors do not seek 'truth and justice', they seek convictions. It's how they keep score. Sometimes they're not too ethical in how they go about it, and view exculpatory evidence as something to be suppressed in their goal. They have the awesome power of the state behind them in their efforts, whether for good or ill, and don't seem to mind locking up an innocent person occasionally if their conviction rate demands it or it proves too difficult for the police to find the actual criminal. This seems to me to be particularly true in the case of people of color, and what the hell, they all look alike anyway and one is as good as any other.

They don't like having their convictions overturned, either. It makes them look bad and it should.

The flip side of this is that these are journalism students, young and idealistic about their chosen field, which is a good thing as we desperately need more idealism in journalism these days about speaking truth to power. They're learning about the real world and what happens when they take on the establishment. The ones who survive will be the wiser for it.

The only place you'll see this realistic view of prosecutors on TV in our "damn the facts, lock 'em up!" society on any kind of regular basis is in the character of the pathetic ADA Sonya on L&O:SVU, which I only watch out of unrequited lust a sense of loyalty to a former Miss My Home Town who appears on it.

My view of prosecutors comes from years of experience in my town's defendant pool. Once one of the usual suspects, I am now a Defendant Emeritus. Our motto is "I'm gettin' too old for this shit".

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