It’s a scenario straight out of a nightmare: the police arrive at your home with a search warrant and find a lockbox hidden away in your attic that you had no idea was even there. Inside the box is 500g of cocaine and the cooking utensils used to make crack. A former boyfriend, the father of one of your children, confesses that the cocaine is his, while you explain you had no knowledge of the lockbox, the drugs or the fact that your ex was a dealer. To your horror, your ex-boyfriend, in order to receive a lighter sentence, agrees to testify that he paid you to hold his drugs; you are charged with conspiracy to possess crack cocaine and intent to distribute, as well as obstruction of justice for testifying that you weren’t even involved in your ex’s dealing in the first place.
Because of a previous minor drug conviction in your past, the judge is required by our legal system to give you a mandatory sentence of life without parole. Your three children – ages 4 through 8 – are now left behind without their mom, to be raised by your sister.
This is exactly what happened to Florida resident Stephanie George who, after serving 17 years, had her sentence commuted by President Obama. Her case is just one example of why mandatory sentencing laws for nonviolent drug crimes need to be eliminated and how too much power in the hands of prosecutors can result in punishing innocent people.
What is a Prosecuting Attorney?
When a crime committed against a person violates local or state law, a prosecuting attorney typically handles the case. The prosecutor is the legal party tasked with presenting a case against the individual accused of committing the crime. The titles of prosecutors and state courts vary state to state. (Please note that, in Texas, prosecutors are called district attorneys.)
There’s no question that most prosecuting attorneys are honest and dedicated to upholding the law. However, several changes to this country’s legal system has given more power to prosecuting attorneys at the expense of the rights of the accused. This shift not only results in completely imbalanced charges and verdicts like the ones in Ms. George’s case, it can compel a prosecutor with career or political ambitions to abuse that power in order to win more cases.
Significant and relatively recent changes to our legal system that have handed too much power to prosecutors include the following:
The proliferation of plea bargaining
When a suspect agrees to plead guilty to a lesser charge if more severe charges are dropped, it’s called a plea bargain. Plea bargains can be helpful in cases where a child or other victim of a crime wants to avoid the trauma of having to take the stand and testify. However, one of the many problems with plea bargaining is that prosecutors will pressure the accused to cop a plea by threatening to charge him or her with a crime that comes with a harsh, mandatory minimum sentence. According to a recent article in The Economist, more than 95 percent of cases end up as plea bargains and never go to trial, which means 95 percent of all defendants are guilty. Statistically speaking, that is highly unlikely; it instead indicates that an overwhelming number of defendants are being bullied into pleading “guilty” at a lesser charge for fear they will not win their case and receive a longer, harsher sentence.
New and overly complex laws that can be interpreted in a number of ways
Selective interpretation of new and confusing laws by prosecutors gives them the advantage of coming up with charges that carry far harsher sentencing than is necessary. The accused hears the severity of the charge, gets scared, and, again, is willing to cop a plea rather than go to trial.
Deals with co-operating witnesses
Prosecutors hungry for a conviction may push a suspect to testify against another as a “cooperating witness.” But cooperating witnesses are often compelled to bend the truth or even lie on the stand in order to receive a lighter sentence. The testimony Ms. George’s ex-boyfriend agreed to give is a perfect example of how prosecutors manipulate cooperating witnesses. Even scarier, a study by Northwestern University Law School’s Centre on Wrongful Convictions revealed that false testimony by cooperating witnesses accounted for 46 percent of wrongful capital convictions between 1973 and 2004, which makes them the number one cause of wrongful death convictions in cases where the penalty was death.
The term “Brady violations,” or the “Brady rule,” comes from the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brady v. Maryland that requires prosecutors to reveal any exculpatory evidence they come across to the defense, including evidence that might help prove the defendant’s innocence or reduce his or her sentence. Not only do some prosecutors ignore this rule, the punishment for violating it typically amounts to just a few days in jail and a temporary job suspension.
What can be done to make the criminal justice system fairer so prosecutors stop sending innocent people to prison? Certainly we need a fundamental change in mandatory sentencing laws for drug-related crimes. And prosecutors should not be immune to criminal sanction or private litigation when they violate the law.
Criminal Defense that Counts
As more states take steps to curb the potential for abuse of power by prosecutors, our award-winning criminal defense attorneys, including two-time Super Lawyer awardee Mark Thiessen, will continue to fight for your rights to ensure you are given a fair trial. If you have been accused of a crime you didn’t commit, don’t just roll over and cop a plea. Contact Thiessen Law Firm today.