Public officials argue that to be able to carry out their duties, laws must protect them from lawsuits by disgruntled individuals or those harmed by wrongful actions of government agents. The U.S. Supreme Court especially has protected prosecutors, granting them absolute immunity as long as they committed wrongful acts within the scope of their legal duties.
Advocates argue that unless prosecutors receive such drastic protection, those charged and sometimes convicted – guilty or not – will bury prosecutors under a blizzard of lawsuits for misconduct. Yet, as we see with the infamous Pottawattamie County vs. McGhee, one also can argue that prosecutorial immunity also create conditions for a legal version of a “Lemons Problem,” in which prosecutors are encouraged to present false information as being true and jurors and the public can be fooled.
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In 1977, police and prosecutors in Council Bluffs, Iowa, desperately wanted to solve the murder of a former police officer there. The district attorney, David Richter, faced an election the next year, and he wanted to keep his job.
Despite having good evidence that led to the trail of the potential killer, Richter and police charged two black teenagers, Terry Harrington and Curtis McGhee, who lived in neighboring Nebraska, and tried them for murder. What followed was a nightmare for the two young men, one of whom was the captain of his high school football team. Richter, his assistant, Joseph Hrvol, and the police zeroed in on the two young men, even to the point of ignoring evidence that would have taken them elsewhere.
What followed was a frame-up, and the state convinced an all-white jury in 1978 that Harrington and McGhee were guilty. The star witness for the state was a 16-year-old boy who, to be charitable, was quite unreliable:
Harrington (after being convicted and given a life sentence in prison) struck up a friendship with the prison barber, who petitioned for the police records in his case. According to defense lawyers, those records not only disclosed how police and prosecutors had coached Hughes until his story matched the facts, and how other witnesses were coerced into lying, but that the records also showed that police and prosecutors had withheld evidence that pointed to another suspect.
They had identified a white man named Charles Gates, who had been seen with a shotgun near the scene of the crime. Gates, the brother-in-law of a Council Bluffs Fire Department captain, was interviewed and failed a polygraph. But prosecutors and police abandoned their interest in him in favor of Harrington, who was not even offered a polygraph.
Absolute Immunity for Prosecutors Creates the Classic “Lemons Problem”Public officials argue that to be able to carry out their duties, laws must protect them from lawsuits by disgruntled individuals or those harmed by wrongful actions of government agents. The U.S.
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