Is the protection of innocence no longer a prerequisite of the US and Kansas Justice System? Following a spate of recent legal cases where the validity of convictions have been brought into question due to issues of prosecutorial misconduct this is a question that is increasingly being asked.
The presumption of innocent until proven guilty has been the very foundation of the US criminal justice system since it was first tested in the case of Coffin v. United States (156 U.S. 432 (1895)). Despite popular belief it is not the task of prosecutors to ensure conviction of a person by whatever means are at their disposal. Their task is to present all of the available evidence in a manner that allows the jury to decide guilt or innocence beyond reasonable doubt.
However, recent criminal cases have shown that this maxim is not always being adhered to, particularly by some prosecuting teams. In February this year for example, a Jackson City prosecutor was admonished for withholding significant records from defence lawyers in the case of the city v Matthew Davis. Davis had been accused of abandoning the corpse of Amber McGathey who died in his apartment, a crime for which he pleaded guilty and received a seven year sentence. It was stated by the Judge that the withheld evidence would have cast serious doubt upon the guilty plea, which she subsequently threw out.
Similarly, in the high profile case of Senator Ted Stevens, as reported in the LA Times (4/02/2009), the Judge held four prosecution lawyers ‘in contempt of court’ after they failed to turn information over to the defence. Senator Stevens had been convicted on seven counts of failing to report renovation gifts. However, the withheld evidence could have proven that he would have paid for renovations.
These two cases illustrate how easy it can be for a miscarriage of justice to take place. Both prosecuting and defence counsels have a duty to the law and the defendants to ensure they present their side of the case in a fair and just manner. Evidence presented or acquired by the prosecution during the course of their investigations must be provided to the defence and the jury in its entirety. It is not up to the prosecution team to judge evidence to be disclosed based on what will be most advantageous to their case. Similarly, in the event that a witness known to the prosecution team can provide evidence that weakens their case, this information should still be passed to the defence team.
Justice is by definition founded upon fairness, which is a fundamental human right as prescribed within the US and UN constitutions. It therefore follows that both prosecuting and defence lawyers in a criminal case should have access to the same information with which to argue their case. In other words full and frank exchange of documents must take place in all instances. More importantly, as the judges in both of the cases discussed previously have said, it is for the jury to decide whether such information and evidence provides reasonable doubt in respect of the defendant’s innocence. If either legal party does not comply with this maxim it is right that they should be admonished and, at the very least, the defendant should be entitled to a re-trial and recourse against those who are found guilty of flouting the rules of justice.