THE DEFENSE NEVER RESTS
January 4th, 2010
ROGUES PAY THEIR
Victory for the innocent. The
Supreme Court will not be able to rule on whether prosecutors can be sued
for suborning perjury. However overall the case is still a win of sorts.
Prosecutors agreed to pay $12 million dollars to the wrongfully convicted.
This will not return their 30 years of life spent in hell but maybe it will
send a message to prosecutors thinking of "tweaking" their cases.
By Warren Richey Staff writer / January 4, 2010
The US Supreme Court on Monday dismissed a case over whether prosecutors who
knowingly procure false testimony that leads to a wrongful conviction can
later be sued for damages.
Lawyers announced that the parties in the underlying lawsuit had agreed to
end the case in a $12 million settlement.
The two innocent men, Terry Harrington and Curtis McGhee, had spent nearly
26 years in prison for a murder they didn’t commit. After the truth was
discovered and they were released, they sued the prosecutors in
Pottawattamie County, Iowa.
An investigation revealed that the prosecutors helped assemble and present
false testimony that led to their convictions. Messrs. Harrington and McGhee
had been sentenced to life in prison at hard labor with no possibility of
The prosecutors fought the civil lawsuit, arguing that they were entitled to
absolute immunity from such litigation for actions taken at trial.
The high court heard oral argument in the case on November 4. The case is
Pottawattamie County v. McGhee and Harrington.
“Terry Harrington deserves this after his unwavering patience and
perseverance as to his innocence,” said one of Harrington’s lawyers, Doug
McCalla of Jackson, Wy. “Cases like Terry’s make it very clear that we need
the powerful remedies provided by this country’s civil rights statutes.”
Harrington and McGhee are both African-American. They were teens when
arrested and accused of murdering a recently retired local police officer
who was working as a night security guard at a car dealership.
At his sentencing hearing more than 30 years ago in 1978, Harrington
insisted that he was not guilty. “I just want you to know that no matter
what happens, I know I’m innocent,” he told the court. “As long as, you
know, I feel that inside, then I’m going to keep on fighting because I know
I can’t see myself locked up for the rest of my life for something I didn’t
Harrington added: “I feel I was judged by the color of my skin and not the
content of my character, and I’ll always feel that way until I get, you
know, the kind of verdict the testimony shows, and that’s innocent.”
Harrington was arrested at age 17. By the time he was released he was 43.
An important legal issue
The case presented an important issue in the criminal justice system: To
what extent can prosecutors be held responsible for violating the
constitutional rights of defendants when they send innocent individuals to
The Obama administration had urged the high court to side with the
prosecutors out of concern that a ruling for the innocent defendants might
make prosecutors reluctant to aggressively enforce the law.
Attorneys general from 27 states and the District of Columbia filed a friend
of the court brief urging the high court to embrace a broad view of immunity
The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Cato Institute,
and the American Civil Liberties Union had argued for a lower level of
immunity, so-called qualified immunity, that offers prosecutors protection
from most lawsuits except when they have violated a clearly established
Lawyers for the prosecutors had argued that their clients deserved absolute
immunity because the wrongful acts didn’t occur until the trial when the
false testimony was presented to the jury. Prosecutors traditionally enjoy
absolute immunity for their actions at trial.
Lawyers for Harrington and McGhee said the prosecutors participated in the
investigation and helped arrange the false testimony well before the trial.
These actions should not be shielded by immunity, they argued.
The lawsuit against the prosecutors was filed in 2005. A similar lawsuit
against the City of Council Bluff and the local police department is still
pending and is expected to go to trial later this year.
CS monitor article.
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