During a hearing in a case that might well have gotten very little attention, a panel of judges on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals angrily confronted a state attorney about what they see as rampant misconduct by prosecutors in California and the fact that state judges are doing almost nothing to prevent it.
Deputy Atty. Gen. Kevin R. Vienna was there to urge three judges on the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold murder convictions against Johnny Baca for two 1995 killings in Riverside County. Other courts had already determined that prosecutors had presented false evidence in Baca’s trial but upheld the verdicts anyway.
Vienna had barely started his argument when the pummeling began.
Judge Alex Kozinski asked Vienna if his boss, Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris, wanted to defend a conviction “obtained by lying prosecutors.” If Harris did not back off the case, Kozinski warned, the court would “name names” in a ruling that would not be “very pretty.”
Judge Kim Wardlaw wanted to know why Riverside County prosecutors presented a murder-for-hire case against the killer but did not charge the man they said had arranged the killings.
“It looks terrible,” said Judge William Fletcher.
The January hearing in Pasadena, posted online under new 9th Circuit policies, provided a rare and critical examination of a murder case in which prosecutors presented false evidence but were never investigated or disciplined…
Prosecutors “got caught this time but they are going to keep doing it because they have state judges who are willing to look the other way,” Kozinski said.
Santa Clara University law professor Gerald Uelmen said the judges’ questions and tone showed they had lost patience with California courts. State judges are supposed to refer errant lawyers, including prosecutors, to the state bar for discipline, but they rarely do, Uelmen said.
“It is a cumulative type thing,” Uelmen said. “The 9th Circuit keeps seeing this misconduct over and over again. This is one way they can really call attention to it.”
A 2010 report by the Northern California Innocence Project cited 707 cases in which state courts found prosecutorial misconduct over 11 years. Only six of the prosecutors were disciplined, and the courts upheld 80% of the convictions in spite of the improprieties, the study found.
Remember, prosecutors also have absolute immunity from civil suits thanks to the Supreme Court. If judges won’t do anything about it, there’s no reason for them not to continue to do it. It seems that few prosecutors give a damn whether justice is done as long as their conviction rate stays high so they can tout it in campaign ads. Prosecutors, like judges, should not be elected to office, they should be appointed.