Just this week, the New York Times ran a lead editorial calling out Louisiana by alleging that prosecutors “are almost never held accountable for misconduct, even when it results in wrongful convictions. Among the most serious prosecutorial violations is the withholding of evidence that could help the defendant prove his or her innocence– a practice so widespread that one federal judge called it an epidemic. Nowhere is this situation worst then in Louisiana where prosecutors seem to believe they are unconstrained by the Constitution.”
OK. Maybe that’s an aberration. One national publication taking a pot shot at the Bayou State? I mean, can it really get all that bad? Unfortunately, the answer is yes. Just Google “prosecutorial conduct in Louisiana” and seem how many different stories pop up.
How about this expose’ just two weeks ago in the Huffington Post: “It seems incontestable that Louisiana’s criminal justice system is in a state of collapse. The state judiciary appears to be oblivious to violations of the constitutional rights of criminal defendants; prosecutors continue to violate the rights of accused with impunity, especially by suppressing exculpatory evidence.”
Or how about this headline from the Washington Post: “In Louisiana prosecutor offices, a toxic culture of death and invincibility. The article outlines the ongoing problem of prosecutor misconduct, using Louisiana as the poster state to explain why even egregious misconduct not only isn’t punished but also is often incentivized.”
Perhaps the most blatant example of prosecutors abusing the public trust was the New Orleans conviction of Dan Bright for first-degree murder. Both the FBI and the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office suppressed a statement from a confidential FBI informant identifying somebody completely different as the triggerman. Bright received the death penalty and stayed on death row for nine years in a coffin size cell for 23 hours a day.
The foreman on Bright’s jury that unanimously voted for the death penalty was a lady named Kathleen Norman. She was a guest on my radio program a few years back, and told my listeners: “I came to know that the FBI had suppressed key evidence. The decision to keep information from the jury that Bright was innocent makes a mockery of our system and turns citizen-jurors into patsies of the state.”
Louisiana is not an aberration when it comes to prosecutorial misconduct. A recent Pew Research poll found that only 46% of Americans have a favorable opinion of the Department of Justice. There certainly are a number of parishes were prosecutors insist on fair play and try to seek out a just result. But it is obvious that criminal justice system in the Bayou State has some serious problems when it comes to adhering to the law. Thankfully, there are responsible officials looking for stronger checks and balances.
New Orleans District Attorney Leo Cannizzaro has put in place a new conviction integrity unit working with the Innocence Project to investigate wrongful prosecutions. And New Orleans Congressman Cedric Richmond has introduced federal legislation to undertake independent review when allegations are made of misconduct by Justice Department attorneys. If there was not such a pervasive problem in Louisiana of prosecutors violating the law, no such oversight would or should be necessary. Such independent review is both needed and long overdue.
Citizens in Louisiana and throughout America deserve better. As Bob Dylan says in his song Hurricane, justice is not a game.
“How can the life of such a man
Be in the palm of some fools hand?
To see him obviously framed
Couldn’t help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land
Where justice is a game.”
Peace and Justice
Jim Brown’s syndicated column appears each week in numerous newspapers throughout the nation and on websites worldwide. You can read all his past columns and see continuing updates at http://www.jimbrownusa.com. You can also hear Jim’s nationally syndicated radio show each Sunday morning from 9 am till 11:00 am, central time, on the Genesis Radio Network, with a live stream at http://www.jimbrownusa.com.