Another conviction reversed: Exhibit n for no prosecutorial immunity

In what is becoming routine, another conviction was reversed this past week in New York, this one too based on the eyewitness testimony of 5 individuals. This, though, isn’t the usual case of mistaken ID nor is it a DNA exoneration.

Convicted of murder in 1992, Fernando Bermudez has wrongly been in jail for 17 years. Interestingly, it took only a year from his conviction for the eyewitnesses to recant citing police and prosecutorial pressure and manipulation:

A year after Mr. Bermudez’s 1992 conviction, five witnesses who had identified him as the killer at trial recanted, saying in sworn affidavits that, they were coerced or manipulated by the police and prosecutors to identify Mr. Bermudez as the killer. Several of those witnesses reiterated their recantations in September at a hearing before Justice Cataldo.

Not only that, but all 5 testified at the most recent hearing that they viewed his mugshot as a group and discussed his likeness to the killer: a big no-no in photo array identifications. All the science in this field shows that we have a tendency to compare pictures to each other and to what we think the suspect looks like and pick the one that most closely resembles the person sought to be identified, instead of picking the person who actually is. If you don’t believe me, try this simple test from expert Gary Wells‘ website.

In his 79-page decision, Justice Cataldo wrote that Mr. Bermudez’s rights were violated because the police had allowed prosecution witnesses to view Mr. Bermudez’s mug shot as a group and to discuss his resemblance to the killer. Justice Cataldo also found that the prosecution should have known before sentencing that one of its cooperating witnesses, Efraim Lopez — a teenager whom Mr. Blount had punched at the club — had given false testimony.

But that doesn’t deter prosecutors. In fact, they’re so wedded to the notion that once a conviction is obtained it must be defended at all costs – and certainly one where the reversal is based in part on misbehavior by one of their own – that they utter nonsense like the following:

“We don’t think the defense has shown anything wrong with the verdict,” Mr. Dwyer [the chief assistant Manhattan district attorney] said.

I’m not sure what world Mr. Dwyer lives in that 5 recantations don’t imply something wrong with a verdict, but wherever it is, I don’t want to live there.

What cases like these ought to do is put more focus on SCOTUS’ upcoming decision in Pottawattamie County v. McGhee [oral argument transcript here; scotusblog recap here]. The issue in Pottawattamie is whether prosecutors should enjoy immunity for intentionally coercing false testimony in the investigation phase of a prosecution and then introducing that same testimony at a trial that leads to conviction. In that case:

In 1978, Curtis McGhee and Terry Harrington were convicted of murdering a retired police officer in Pottawattamie County, Iowa and sentenced to life in prison. Twenty-five years later, the release of new files in the cases revealed that prosecutors had fabricated the testimony of a lead witness at their trials and failed to disclose evidence about an alternative suspect to the defense. The Iowa Supreme Court vacated Harrington’s sentence, and McGhee pleaded guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for time served. Both prisoners were freed.

The oral argument in Pottawattamie is something to read. It shocks the mind that something so simple as intentionally framing an innocent person is a phrase never once uttered by any party (not that I remember anyway). Some of the justices were more concerned with the chilling effect on prosecutors. Look, we all acknowledge that most prosecutors try to do their jobs fairly and very, very few of them wouldn’t be bothered by a wrongful conviction on their conscience. But how does removing immunity for intentionally framing someone produce a “chilling” effect on their prosecutorial function? It seems bass-ackwards. If anything, wouldn’t it make prosecutors more careful in whom they pursue and whom they charge? Would  removing such immunity not provide the very result which we seek: no wrongful convictions and certainly none that are obtained by intentional falsification of the evidence? [Listen to NPR's Morning Edition's coverage of this case last week, which includes listener calls from prosecutors and public defenders.]

For me, the answer in Pottawattamie is simple: If you’re a prosecutor who intentionally frames an individual, you should be sued. Not only should you be sued, but you should be disbarred. The latter is less likely to happen than I am to become the next Chuck Norris, but the former should be a real threat. The power of a prosecutor is awesome and that power should be wielded with great care and never with malice or dishonesty.

Had police and prosecutors not pressured 5 people into falsely identifying Mr. Bermudez, he probably wouldn’t have spent 17 years in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. That’s the real moral of this story, not the legal fiction of “opening floodgates” or “chilling effects”. Anyone who gives any weight to such an argument needs to spend 17 years in jail in his place.

And because it’s a Sunday night, I give you this little joke:

Get it?

Get it?

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