Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Ethics and Elections 2016

I am not a political commentator, but when criminal justice and politics intersect I do speak up.

In Baltimore we have Nick Mosby, husband of State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby, running for mayor. Nick was the first politician in the family, successfully running for city council.  He then worked hard for his wife's election as top prosecutor.  Now he yearns to be top dog himself.

It seemed pretty obvious to me that this would create a major conflict of interest, with Nick responsible for the police department and Marilyn handling prosecutions.  The two agencies have to work together, and it's important that they do so, but they also must be independent of each other to protect the integrity of the criminal justice system.  How can we know that one Mosby is not covering for the other for the sake of their careers?

So when Nick Mosby showed up at my place of employment to give his stump speech, I asked one question:  how could he not see his being mayor as a huge conflict of interest when his wife was State's Attorney?  

"I'm glad you asked that question," he replied, and launched into a fully rehearsed response.  His main point: since the state's attorney budget is only a fraction of the city budget, and the city council has the power to take out what he puts in the budget, there's no problem.

What garbage.  The conflict isn't about budget, it's about policy, accountability, and transparency.  I refrained from any follow-up questions, as this was not my personal forum.  But one person got up and left, saying, "He didn't answer her question, so I'm done with him."  Others murmured similar sentiments.  And one senior citizen later said to me, "Thank you, Page, for asking that question.  We were all kind of wondering about that, but you asked it."

So the problem is pretty darn obvious, even to ordinary citizens.  They don't need a legal expert to point out the conflict of interest.  They see it and are concerned about it.  

But not Nick Mosby.  Ethical blindness - or arrogance - must run in the family.  

Oh, and even though he didn't fool his audience with his answer, he fooled them in another way.  After his presentation he asked people to come up for some photographs.  After some cajoling, a few came up, whereupon one of his staffers shoved signs in their hands and told them to hold them up for the camera.  They didn't have a chance to read the signs, but dutifully complied.  As of this writing one of those photographs, with a woman holding a sign that reads "Women for Mosby", is on his political Facebook page, an unauthorized (and fraudulently obtained) use of an image.  From our wannabe next mayor.

Speaking of ethics (or the lack thereof), there's another election going on in Baltimore, one that voters tend to ignore because they know nothing about the candidates.  They ought to make it their business to know - last election they put Judge Alfred Nance back on the bench and he let an accused murderer go because he's an arrogant nut.  Now the same gang that supports all the sitting judges no matter how awful or mediocre is back, asking voters to elect their latest round of politically appointed judges.

One of the standing judicial candidates - someone willing to stand up to the legal community and their political picks - is Todd Oppenheim, a city public defender.  In the course of his campaigning Oppenheim attended a community forum in Charles Village where he encountered one Dana Moore, who introduced the sitting judges and did most of their talking.

Moore was a long-time member of the city's Judicial Nominating Commission, which nominates judicial candidates to the governor.  For a time, she simultaneously served on the Maryland State Bar committee that makes recommendations to the Commission - in other words, she influenced the recommendations that she received.   A politically connected lawyer, Moore served on the city liquor board and was chair of the city ethics board.  Except oops, Moore failed to file her own ethics forms for three of the years she was on the ethics board.

When Oppenheim's turn to speak at the forum came up, Moore, acting as mouthpiece for the sitting judges, attacked him from the floor, calling him a "liar" for observations he made about the way judges are picked. Afterward she cornered him and told him that she was going to "haunt" him.

Nice stuff from someone whose professionalism and judgment we are supposed to trust, who didn't follow her own ethical responsibilities, and who influenced a committee in its recommendations to a commission on which she sat.

I think I'll take the candidate Moore isn't supporting, the one that turned his back on the Politics of Picking Judges.  Todd Oppenheim.   I prefer a person of principle over those who rely on political connections and mouthpieces like Moore any time.  

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Court of Appeals and Freddie Gray

It really does reflect incredibly poorly on the State's Attorney. The fact that we're plumbing new depths of legal precedent illustrates how much of a witch hunt this is. In any other case where there wasn't a political motive, the state wouldn't have prosecuted Porter in exchange for his testimony. That's how it works. That's why there's no precedent. No one's ever been desperate enough to get convictions to try this.
This on-line reaction to the Court of Appeals order compelling Officer William Porter to testify against his co-defendants in the Freddie Gray case sums up my view.  But let me elaborate. 

The "new depths of legal precedent" began with the trial judge ordering Porter to testify against two co-defendants, Sgt. Alicia White and Officer Caesar Goodson, while Porter was still pending criminal charges in the same case after his first jury hung. The secondary issue was whether the judge could refuse to make Porter testify against the other three co-defendants when the judge believed that it was a ruse by prosecutors to postpone those cases until after the White and Goodson trials.

And therein lies the rub. The potential for prosecutors to abuse their authority. It's exactly what the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall warned about in dissenting from the Supreme Court's approving the use of testimonial immunity. When a witness is given testimonial immunity, it means that they cannot invoke their 5th Amendment privilege against self-incrimination, but that nothing they say, or anything derived from what they said (new leads, new evidence, etc.) can be used against them. This immunity, he said, was tied to the good faith of prosecutors, and he was unwilling to put such power in their hands.

State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby and her lead prosecutor, Michael Schatzow, took a law that was aimed at witnesses and used it to force a person facing charges to testify. Career prosecutors have not done this, understanding the intent of the law.  As the commentator said, they make plea bargains with co-defendants to get their testimony instead.  But Schatzow wanted Porter's hide, too, or maybe he knew Porter wouldn't take a plea deal because he committed no crime.  So it took a civil litigator-turned-prosecutor to play legal gamesmanship and extract a new meaning from the immunity law. The potential for prosecutor mischief is huge. In fact, Schatzow has already demonstrated that potential by using his power to postpone cases.

But greater abuse is possible.  A prosecutor, for example, could deliberately set up a witness for a perjury charge, since perjury is excluded from protection.  Assistant attorney general Carrie Willliams, in arguing the case before the Court of Appeals, said that there is "no right to commit perjury."  Well, one of the ancillary protections of the 5th Amendment is to not be maneuvered into lying to protect oneself.  It is naive to think that a defendant would trust a prosecutor to not consciously or unconsciously improperly use his testimony against him.  

Porter's attorney, Gary Proctor, who seemed out-of-his-league at the Court of Appeals hearing, nevertheless made the point that by making Porter testify five times in co-defendant cases prosecutors would also be forcing the kind of inconsistencies that come naturally when people tell the same story over and over, but that could be used to damn him later.

A prosecutor could also use the compelled testimony to get leads and then manufacture evidence that she got these leads herself.  However "heavy" (per Williams) the burden is upon prosecutors to prove that they didn't do this, the truth is that any bad faith of the prosecutor would be difficult to unmask.

As a young prosecutor, I was offended when defense attorneys suggested that I would hide evidence or misuse my position to get a conviction. But when I encountered slimy defense attorneys who had once been prosecutors, I understood the suspicions. I have them myself about Marilyn Mosby, who from the beginning has violated her ethical responsibilities in these cases.

Schatzow, in arguing before the Court of Appeals, essentially told them that it was none of their business why he suddenly wanted to call Porter as a witness in the trials of three officers, which he knew would force postponements. He argued that it was his job to decide on his witnesses and the court's job to make them testify as long as he followed procedural steps. In other words, he claimed the privilege to manipulate the law to maneuver his cases into the most favorable position for himself. Schatzow needs a conviction on any count against any defendant to justify his indictments, and wanted to move the weakest cases to the end of the line. He even risked having an important prosecutorial tool, testimonial immunity, ruled unconstitutional under the Maryland constitution, to get his way.

It didn't happen, though I don't know whether that was good or bad for prosecutors. Good that they still have the tool when needed against criminals, bad in that they may pull a Schatzow: use the power to manipulate defendants and cases to get convictions of any kind in spite of the lack of evidence.

We will know more about the thinking of the Court of Appeals when they release their full opinion.  My guess is that they followed the letter of the law on both issues. First, the testimonial immunity statute does not specifically exclude charged defendants from being forced to testify, and there is no legal precedent to say that they can't be. Second, that the law does not provide for trial judges to decide whether a compelled witness is necessary to a prosecutor's case or not.  In addition, since Porter had already testified in his own defense the "cat", as one justice said, was "already out of the bag." Williams made a similar point: Porter was better off having already been tried, since everyone could see what evidence the State had against him before he testified.  This may have also factored into their decision.  Judges generally try to limit themselves to the facts in front of them, not theoretical scenarios.

But I have little doubt that the justices are on high alert to the potential for abuse. After all, Schatzow practically admitted that he manipulated the system to get postponements, and they could not have liked that. They may not feel that the law allows them to step in now, but I have no reason yet to not trust this court - now that former Chief Judge Robert Bell has retired - to apply the law properly.

And that should include reversing any convictions of these officers, either on the grounds that the trials should have been moved from the city, or on the grounds that the evidence in the cases do not support the charges. After all, forcing Porter to testify doesn't change the facts. Porter will only say what he testified to previously: that while Gray may have asked for a medic in response to his question, he did not appear to be injured. So whatever he told White and Goodson, he would not have communicated any imminent danger that the others ignored.  What his testimony will do is help prosecutors get past a motion to dismiss the case, and give any biased jury a hook to hang a conviction on.

But the officers, as I have written, committed no crime. Damaged as my faith is in the ethical behavior of prosecutors, I have to believe that the Maryland appeals courts will ensure ultimate justice.  Not "justice for Freddie Gray" - justice.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

A Texas-Sized Lesson

A sensational story, garnering national coverage. Widespread calls for an immediate criminal investigation. Ideologues on the left and right shouting their preconceived condemnations.

The Freddie Gray case?  To this point, yes.  But here's what happened next:

A responsible, ethical prosecutor made a promise to "follow the evidence wherever it leads."  He took his time, using the powerful tools that prosecutors have at their disposal to find the truth.  

Two months later, the accusations of criminal conduct turned on their head:  the accused was proved innocent, and the accusers indicted instead.

Now I don't perceive Texas to be a beacon of enlightenment when it comes to criminal justice.  Its citizens can openly carry guns with the backing of strong right-to-use-force laws.  It executes more prisoners than any other state.  

But Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson, a Republican, refused to bow to political and social pressure when pro-life, self-styled "investigators" accused Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast of selling fetal tissue for profit.  Instead, Anderson launched a two-month investigation, using a Grand Jury, and not only cleared Planned Parenthood, but indicted its accusers.

State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby, his Baltimore counterpart, took a mere two weeks to investigate the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, ignoring all the standard investigative tools at her disposal. Instead of  "following the evidence wherever it leads" she predetermined the result, abandoning her prosecutorial ethics for politics, ideology, and career.  As a result, six Baltimore police officers innocent of any crime are being dragged through costly trials, and the city's top prosecutors, instead of leading the city through a crime spike sparked in large part by their own actions, are trying to salvage their cases "by any and all means necessary."  (Mosby's own words while investigating the Gray case.) 

Mosby's in good company with the political leaders at the Texas state level, who plan to continue their own investigations of Planned Parenthood because the original accusations fit their pro-life ideology. The editors of our own Baltimore Sun won't throw in the towel, either. Today, in an editorial condemning the twitter comments of a city police officer, they wrote:

Freddie Gray's arrest and death may or may not have involved criminal behavior by police, but it certainly conveyed the impression that Baltimore police are entirely unsympathetic to many in the city they serve — and that's putting it as generously as possible.

They refuse to concede that Mosby's evidence does not reveal criminal activity after their long crusade for criminal trials,  and still claim that at the very least both the arrest (!) and the death of Gray prove that Baltimore police are, at best, "entirely unsympathetic" to citizens.  They ignore anything that contradicts this narrative, including the evidence that police van driver Caesar Goodson asked Officer William Porter to check on Gray, who not only did check but helped him off the van floor.    

But it's a lost cause when it comes to ideologues, whether they come from the right or the left.  Thank goodness for prosecutors like Devon Anderson, who give me hope that ethics, objectivity and professionalism live somewhere, if not in Baltimore.