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Editorial: We Need Reforms to Increase Confidence in the Justice System

A pair of hands in handcuffs
A pair of hands in handcuffs
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February 29, 2012

An excellent op-ed in the Times-Picayune (New Orleans) today begins, “Our justice system makes two promises to its citizens: a fundamentally fair trial and an accurate result. As Justice Cochran of Texas’ highest criminal court observed, ‘If either of those two promises are not met, the criminal justice system itself falls into disrepute and may eventually be disregarded.'”

The author, Pascal F. Calogero Jr., ought to know: he’s a retired state Supreme Court chief justice from Louisiana, a state whose justice system has been tainted by more than its share of misconduct. More specifically, lawyers from the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office have repeatedly been found to withhold evidence from cases that would have exonerated men who instead ended up on death row. John Thompson spent 18 years in prison (14 on death row) there for a crime he didn’t commit because the district attorney’s office hid evidence that would have proven his innocence.

This is not a problem of the past — it continues in cases being prosecuted today. Indeed, there is abundant evidence that prosecutors are cheating to win at the expense of not just the innocent people sent to jail, but the victims of crimes whose real perpetrators remain at large.

Calogero writes, “I still believe the majority of prosecutors are fair-minded, but it is no longer possible to call these violations rare. The problem is not rogue prosecutors; it’s a system that heavily incentivizes the winning of convictions at any cost and provides no penalty for breaking rules.” He goes on to call on the courts and attorney discipline system to ensure prosecutors that withhold evidence face strict discipline. He also calls for basic legislative reforms that would increase confidence in the system.

Calogero is absolutely right: it’s time for real reform, not just a fix-it-up-as-you-go-along response to case-after-case of misconduct. That one person would go to death row because of prosecutorial misconduct is shocking; that the problem continues relatively unabated is unacceptable.

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