Appeals Court Says Prosecutors May Be Sued for Wrongful Conviction
By: Gerri L. Elder
Few things can be more traumatic than being wrongfully convicted of a crime and sentenced to prison. In the cases that the record is eventually set right, there is little recourse for the people who were wrongfully convicted. In certain jurisdictions, some people who have been wrongfully convicted may be eligible for some limited monetary compensation, but even that is often denied.
Prosecutors and judges have been granted immunity from prosecution by the Supreme Court so that they are able to do their job without fear of being held liable for their mistakes. When a person who has been wrongfully convicted is later found to be completely innocent, the prosecutor who brought the charges and the judge who sentenced them to prison can not be sued or prosecuted in any way for doing so.
The Los Angeles Times has reported that the Supreme Court is now being asked to decide who is responsible for wrongful criminal convictions. The Supreme Court is considering whether or not to hear a California case that could give a man who was wrongfully convicted the right to sue the prosecutors who brought the murder charges against him.
Prosecutors in Los Angeles are asking the Supreme Court to block a lawsuit brought against former Los Angeles District Attorney John K. Van de Kamp by Thomas L. Goldstein. Goldstein’s case was given the green light last year by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Van de Kamp was the chief prosecutor in Los Angeles County from 1975 to 1983. Goldstein’s lawsuit does not allege that Van de Kamp knew he was innocent or played a direct role in the wrongful conviction of Goldstein for a 1979 shotgun murder in Long Beach. Instead, the lawsuit alleges that Van de Kamp mismanaged the case and that he and his top deputy, Curt Livesay, failed to set up a system to monitor the use of testimony from jail informants.
Goldstein was prosecuted and convicted based on information from an inmate who was later found to be lying. He spent 24 years in prison on those criminal charges before the sole eyewitness recanted and it was discovered that the jailhouse informant who told prosecutors that Goldstein had confessed had lied in court about having received promises of special treatment from another county prosecutor in exchange for his testimony.
In the past, the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office made regular use of jailhouse informants without any system in place for sharing information among prosecutors in the county about which informants could be considered reliable or what they had been promised in exchange for the information.
Van de Kamp is now a lawyer in private practice. He and prosecutors in Los Angeles say that this case, if allowed to go forward, could open floodgates for many other lawsuits and that absolute immunity from lawsuits is essential for prosecutors and judges. In cases of misconduct, the state bar may discipline prosecutors and many say that is adequate.
If the Supreme Court decides not to hear the case, Goldstein’s landmark case will go forward and may change criminal court procedures to prevent many wrongful criminal convictions in the future.