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Justice Gone Wrong in New Orleans – The New York Times

2015-10-20

How many constitutional violations will it take before the New Orleans district attorney’s office is held to account for the culture of negligence and outright dishonesty that has pervaded it for decades?

Source: Justice Gone Wrong in New Orleans – The New York Times

Former District Attorney Harry Connick, Sr. was responsible for systematic flouting of the Brady rule, which requires prosecutors to turn over potentially exculpatory evidence to the defense.  At least 36 convictions have been overturned as a result of such violations.  Only in September 2015 was a crucial memo revealed that in 1996 supported the defense against a life sentence imposed on an innocent man by the New Orleans prosecutors.  Yet the Supreme Court denied that this evidence of systematic wrongdoing existed in their 2011 case in which they overturned a $14 million judgement against the New Orleans District Attorney’s Office.  By a 5-4 margin the Supreme Court denied the obvious and consistent evidence showing that the New Orleans District Attorney ignored his responsibilities towards innocent citizens and repeatedly failed to turn over exculpatory evidence.

Here is a quote from a judge’s scathing opinion about this systematic misconduct by prosecutors:

When a public official behaves with such casual disregard for his constitutional obligations and the rights of the accused, it erodes the public’s trust in our justice system, and chips away at the foundational premises of the rule of law. When such transgressions are acknowledged yet forgiven by the courts, we endorse and invite their repetition.

 

It’s not just the District Attorney’s Office of every jurisdiction either.  The investigators and forensic experts who examine the evidence and compile reports are often sloppy or incompetent.  From the next paragraph of the same judge’s opinion:

Olsen’s case points to another important problem—that of rogue investigators and forensic experts. Melinkoff’s long history of misconduct, resulting in the wrongful conviction of numerous innocent people, is hardly unique. Just last month, Annie Dookhan, a Massachusetts crime-lab technician, was sentenced to 3–5 years imprisonment after spending several years filing positive results for samples she had not properly tested. Her misconduct tainted over 40,000 drug samples, implicating several thousand defendants (hundreds of whom have already been released).

The judge goes on to recount dozens of other cases in which forensic evidence has been found to be mishandled or falsified, resulting in wrongful convictions for hundreds or thousands of defendants.  Finally, from the same judge’s report:

Because modern criminal trials frequently turn on forensic reports, these incidents of misconduct raise the frightening prospect that many of the over 1.5 million people now populating state and federal prisons might, in fact, be innocent. See E. Ann Carson & Daniela Golinelli, Prisoners in 2012—Advance Counts, Bureau of Justice Statistics (July 2013). How do rogue forensic scientists and other bad cops thrive in our criminal justice system? The simple answer is that some prosecutors turn a blind eye to such misconduct because they’re more interested in gaining a conviction than achieving a just result.

These stinging accusations are part of a dissent filed December 10, 2013, in the case of US v. Olsen, which can be found here.  It seems that there is no crime venal enough to be punished if it is committed by a United States District Attorney.  It is very likely that a significant proportion of the record number of prisoners we have behind bars are innocent.  Another, unknowable, number are guilty, and there is no reliable method of distinguishing guilt from innocence except to review every case in excruciating detail.  Even then, many cases must be concluded as uncertain because of doubtful methods and unreliable informants.

With all of these uncertainties, I think it is likely that the disproportion in criminal offenses between black and white citizens is more notional than real.  Despite the fact that blacks, being more economically challenged, are more likely to violate the law for economic reasons, there is reason to doubt some of the convictions for other reasons.

There remains the disproportion in black victims of homicidal violence, usually mediated with firearms.  These victims demonstrate less economic motive and more anger and violent impulses.  Are the perpetrators of these black on black homicides impelled by anger to take out their frustration on the most proximate victims?

The concept of black on black homicide as a form of racial suicide has not been adequately explored.  There is deep, personal violence imposed on blacks every day, in countless social encounters with whites who represent an oppressive system.  Having no available outlet, his resentment turns inward and flails at the only target, himself.  This suicidal violence has no explanation except as internalized anger.

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