How Corrupt Prosecutors Get Away With Sending Innocent People to Jail

Prosecutors are arguably the most powerful figures in the American criminal justice system, a system that is not equipped or willing to punish their crimes.
By Phillip Smith

AlterNet
May. 19, 2012

Prosecutors are arguably the most powerful figures in the American criminal justice system. They decide which charges to bring, what plea bargains to offer, and what sentences to request. Given their role in the system and the broad powers they exercise, it is critical that they discharge those duties responsibly and ethically.

But according to attorneys and criminal justice reform advocates, prosecutors across the country are misbehaving -- and getting away with it. While the most common forms of prosecutorial misconduct are hiding exculpatory evidence and engaging in improper examination and argumentation, another form of intentional misconduct is the knowing use of false testimony to win convictions.

"Perjury can easily undermine a defendant's right to a fair trial," said Chicago criminal defense attorney Leonard Goodman.

He ought to know.

In 2009, Goodman represented Brian Wilbourn in a federal narcotics case in which prosecutors knowingly allowed an informant to testify that Wilbourn sold crack cocaine out of a penthouse apartment over a three-year period when he was in fact nowhere near the scene at any time.

"Mr. Wilbourn was safely locked away in prison when the informant testified that Wilbourn was selling drugs at the penthouse between 2002 and 2005," Goodman explained.

The US 7th District Court of Appeals overturned Wilbourn's conviction because of the perjured testimony.

"When the government obtains a conviction through the knowing use of false testimony, it violates a defendant's due process rights," wrote Judge Daniel Manion as he ordered the reversal.

And when a prosecutor knowingly allows perjured testimony to be heard, that's prosecutorial misconduct. In the Wilbourn case, Assistant US Attorney Rachel Cannon knew that her informant's testimony was false -- because Goodman told her so before the trial -- yet she has not been sanctioned in any way. That's not unusual.

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Photo by bloomsberries, Flickr Creative Commons







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