Why do prosecutors and judges obstruct justice?

In today’s New York Times, Adam Liptak details another case in which judges and prosecutors obstinately defend a wrong decision and thereby put a man’s life at stake.

The headline of the article, “Lawyers Stumble, and Clients Take Fall” says it all:  A man on Alabama’s death row may fry because his attorney—addicted to meth at the time—missed a filing deadline for appealing his sentence. At issue was the fact that the jury voted the man a life sentence and a judge overruled it and gave him the death penalty.

The Atlanta appeals court ruled 2-1 that the guy can not pursue a challenge to his conviction, even though our ultra-right U.S. Supreme Court has twice rebuked the same court for its rigid attitude regarding filing deadlines in capital cases.

Whenever I read about another case in which prosecutors and/or judges persist in upholding a wrong decision, I wonder where their sense of justice is. While the defense attorney is supposed to represent the defendant, the mission of the prosecutor and the judge should be to represent the state and the people. It must be in the best interest of the state and the people to get it right, even if that means admitting that an original decision to prosecute or seek the death penalty was wrong, or even if that means, as in this case, using a looser interpretation of the rules. In this case, the prosecutor did not have to object to the late filing and could have recommended waiving the rule, knowing that the attorney was at fault. The judges, chastised on this issue already, could have also given the guy a break. After all, a man’s life is at stake. But prosecutor and judges preferred to an extremely strict interpretation of the law.

The inflexibility of prosecutors and judges is a leading argument against capital punishment. While many are in favor of capital punishment, few approve of executing anyone who is innocent or whose crimes do not meet the legal standard for the death penalty.  How can we ever be absolutely certain of a capital conviction given the sad reality that our judicial system seeks convictions and executions, and not justice?

Every month another example of an injustice hits the national media. A few weeks back it was the man with an I.Q. of 51 who has been in jail 30 years, unconvicted of any crime, waiting for a new trial after his first capital conviction for murder was overturned.  The Texas state government is appealing a recent ruling that would either finally give the guy a new trial or free him. Texas would rather see a man convicted of no crime continue rotting in prison.

These two cases involve unfair treatment of defendants. Even worse is when the state suppresses evidence that shows the defendant or convict is innocent.

These cases of unfair treatment or suppression of exonerating evidence tend to occur to the poor, minorities or those with severe mental disabilities, and they tend to happen in the south. This lack of consistency—of fairness—represents another argument against the death penalty.

Many believe, and I count myself among them, that the best argument against capital punishment is the moral one—that society should not stoop to the level of the murderers and engage in state assassination, and that cost of housing a convicted killer is a small price to pay for remaining human and humane. But even if one rejects the moral argument, the practical ones remain: the cost of making certain the innocent are not executed is too high in a venal world in which justice gives way to the preference of prosecutors, judges and states for preserving their own record of infallibility or pursuing some blood thirsty political agenda.

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