Prosecutors' power now on the defense

Illinois case puts prosecution on trial for sending innocent man todeath row.

America's prosecutors are some of the most powerful public officials in the land. With big budgets and broad powers, these crimebusters chase after society's miscreants. But occasionally, in their zeal they go too far - and cut corners in the name of justice.

So now it's prosecutors themselves who are targets.

Long considered immune from punishment, prosecutors at all levels - from independent counsel Kenneth Starr to the lowliest district attorney - face more scrutiny than ever.

And in a case nearing trial in Chicago's DuPage County, three former prosecutors and four current sheriff's deputies - the "DuPage 7" - face perjury and obstruction-of-justice charges. If found guilty, they would be the first prosecutors in the US punished for knowingly sending an innocent man to death row.

Observers see this closely watched case as part of a widespread ferment bringing prosecutorial abuses to light - and setting new boundaries for US crime fighters.

"Regardless of the verdict," says Houston criminal defense lawyer Kent Schaffer, "this case will put all prosecutors on notice that unethical or illegal conduct could subject them to sanctions - some of which could be more severe than they ever thought possible."

The DuPage 7 story is a case study in the pressures prosecutors face - and why some push the limits of the law in the name of justice.

It began with the 1983 abduction and murder of 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico. Hers was one of just 10 murders in the entire county that year. That, along with the apparent randomness of the crime - she was abducted from her own home - brought big public pressure to convict a killer.

It's a pressure common in high-profile crimes - like the Oklahoma City bombing, the Jasper, Texas, dragging death, and the JonBenet Ramsey case.

"People take on a lynch-mob mentality like you see in westerns," says Mr. Schaffer. And rather than come between the lynch mob and the suspect, "it's easier for the prosecutor to say, 'Well, this suspect looks just as good as any other suspect.' "

Prosecutors - many of whom are elected - also face big pressure to have high conviction rates. If they don't, they can be portrayed as "soft on crime" by political opponents. One prosecutors' group - the National District Attorneys Association - is seeking a new, more realistic measurement.

Back in DuPage, police and prosecutors hunted for Jeanine's killer for an agonizing 13 months. During the hunt, a street youth named Rolando Cruz became a key informant, babbling to police about leads in hopes of getting a $10,000 reward. But with no other leads, Mr. Cruz and two other young roughs became suspects. This prompted one detective to resign in protest. In 1984, the three were charged with the crime.

THE linchpin of the case against Cruz was his "vision statement." Police detectives testified that Cruz told them he had a "vision" about the crime - and gave details only the perpetrator could know.

Cruz denies ever making the statement. And there's no record of it in police notes. The topic also didn't come up during Cruz's grand jury appearances. Now the "vision statement" - and whether police and prosecutors deliberately conjured it up in order to convict Cruz - is a major issue in the DuPage 7 trial.

Cruz was twice convicted of murder and spent 10 years on death row. But during a third trial, the evidence fell apart. In 1995, he was set free, amid evidence of misdeeds by prosecutors and police.

These law-enforcement officials aren't alone. A recent Chicago Tribune investigation of murder convictions found that 381 have been set aside nationwide since 1963 because of prosecutorial misconduct. Of the 381, only two resulted in charges. And both were dismissed before trial. Another investigation by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette found that "hundreds of times during the past 10 years, federal agents and prosecutors have pursued justice by breaking the law."

Such cases raise the issue of prosecutor power - why it's so strong and how they're held accountable.

First, prosecutors chase tough and wily criminals - and require great power to do it effectively. Prosecutors' groups say the vast majority do it well - and legally.

Their power increased in the 1980s, when mandatory sentences were imposed. Because each charge has a specific jail time, prosecutors can determine how much time criminals get by deciding what to charge them with.

Furthermore, prosecutors can reduce jail time if a convict fingers others. This is a huge incentive for convicts to lie. A ruling by a three-judge panel of the 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver last July outlawed this practice - and sent shock waves through the justice system. The full court later reversed itself. Still, pressure is mounting against this practice.

As Congress debates the future of the independent-counsel statute, it is also considering a controversial plan - called the Citizens Protection Act - to constrain federal prosecutors by making them subject to the ethics laws of the state they practice in.

Finally, the prospect of jail time - which the DuPage 7 face - is a new threat that's likely to scare straight any prosecutors tempted to twist the rules.

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