Federal Judge Alex Kozinski, the chief judge of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, declared in a dissenting opinion in a case that prosecutorial misconduct — in this case withholding important information from defense attorneys — is an epidemic in this country. Radley Balko has the details.
Judge Kozinski begins his dissent by saying, “There is an epidemic of Brady violations abroad in the land. Only judges can put a stop to it.” Balko explains what that means:
Brady of course is shorthand for the Supreme Court decision that requires prosecutors to turn over exculpatory evidence to defense attorneys. In Olsen, a decision released this week, the 9th Circuit court found extensive prosecutor misconduct on the part of Assistant U.S. Attorney Earl Hicks, who works for the Office of U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Washington. (Kozinski’s opinion doesn’t name Hicks, nor do most press accounts of the decision, but I will. These prosecutors need to be identified by name.)
Kenneth Olsen was convicted of “developing a biological agent for use as a weapon.” While there was little question Olsen did try to produce ricin, the problem for the government was that there was little specific evidence that Olsen intended to kill someone with it. He attributed his chemistry to morbid curiosity. The strongest evidence from the government was a bottle of allergy pills found in Olsen’s lab that, according to forensic specialists, contained traces of ricin. This would seem to indicate that Olsen was preparing to use the ricin to poison people.
But at the time of the trial, one forensic who handled the pills, Arnold Melnikoff, was under investigation for forensic misconduct. His testimony had already led to three wrongful convictions. A broad and damning internal investigation of his work looked at 100 randomly-chosen cases and found improprieties in 14 of them, including contaminants in his tests; “mistakes in case documentation, administrative documentation, evidence analysis, data interpretation, and written reports”; and “a tendency for conclusions to become stronger as the case developed, from notes to written reports to testimony.”
AUSA Hicks knew about the investigation of Melnikoff, and its sweeping scope. But not only did he fail to disclose this to Olsen’s attorneys, he allowed Melnikoff’s attorney to characterize is at as an “administrative” review that was limited to one case from 10 years ago.
Now here’s the bad part. Two of the three judges in the case decided that even though the prosecutor engaged in misconduct, it didn’t really matter because the jury likely would have convicted him anyway. Kozinski wrote a blistering dissent:
The panel’s ruling is not just wrong, it is dangerously broad, carrying far-reaching implications for the administration of criminal justice. It effectively announces that the prosecution need not produce exculpatory or impeaching evidence so long as it’s possible the defendant would’ve been convicted anyway. This will send a clear signal to prosecutors that, when a case is close, it’s best to hide evidence helpful to the defense, as there will be a fair chance reviewing courts will look the other way, as happened here…
Protecting the constitutional rights of the accused was just not very high on this prosecutor’s list of priorities. The fact that a constitutional mandate elicits less diligence from a government lawyer than one’s daily errands signifies a systemic problem: Some prosecutors don’t care about Brady because courts don’t make them care.
Amen, brother. The courts constantly look the other way when prosecutors violate the constitutional rights of defendants, giving them absolute immunity. And that’s why this goes on so often.