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Retired Supreme Court Justice criticizes misconduct by prosecutors

People who have been accused of a crime in Pennsylvania have rights. Some politicians, who would like to have you believe that they are "tough on crime," often complain about defendants' rights. However, the reason our system of justice recognizes the rights of defendants is that it is far worse for an innocent person to be convicted of a crime than it is for a guilty person to be set free. Unfortunately, innocent people are accused of crimes, including serious felony charges, every day.

Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens recently criticized several court decisions that have failed to properly punish prosecutors for violating defendants' rights, urging lawmakers to allow victims of such misconduct to file lawsuits. Specifically, Justice Stevens pointed out a recent Supreme Court decision that overturned an innocent man's $14 million dollar award, despite having spent 14 years in prison after prosecutors deliberately concealed evidence.

Stevens explained that much of the problem is due to district attorneys that become elected on strictly anti-crime platforms, creating a need for prosecutors to convict suspects, regardless of the suspect's rights to a fair trial. He added that this issue "creates a problem of imbalanced incentives that ought to be addressed at the state and national level." Former Justice Stevens suggested a possible solution.

He proposed that making district attorneys responsible for the violations of constitutional rights on the part of their prosecutors could prevent such indiscretions from occurring in the future. A similar concept known as respondeat superior has long been recognized in the private sector, which makes employers liable for their workers' misconduct.

In a system where electoral platforms encourage public officials to violate regulations and laws, Stevens argued that an incentive for prosecutors to ensure that their employees do not violate the rights of defendants would allow wrongfully imprisoned individuals to experience fair trials and make punitive action against those responsible more feasible.

Source: Wall Street Journal, "Stevens Urges Congress to Crack Down on Prosecutorial Misconduct," Jess Bravin, 5/3/2011

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