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At Supreme Court: Can prosecutors be sued for framing defendants?

Two African-American men wrongly imprisoned for 25 years filed a lawsuit against prosecutors for fabricating evidence against them. The Supreme Court hears the case Wednesday.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 3, 2009



Washington

The US Supreme Court on Wednesday is set to consider an unusual question: Do Americans who have been framed by unscrupulous prosecutors for crimes they did not commit have a right to sue the prosecutors when the fraud is finally exposed?

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According to the Obama administration, the answer is no.

Solicitor General Elena Kagan argues in a friend of the court brief that local, state, and federal prosecutors must enjoy absolute immunity from citizen lawsuits – even when they sent innocent men to prison for life by fabricating incriminating evidence and hiding exculpatory evidence.

Those are the allegations in a case from Iowa set for oral argument on Wednesday morning. According to legal briefs filed in the case, prosecutors in Pottawattamie County, Iowa, solicited false testimony implicating two innocent African-American teens in the murder of a recently retired police officer in 1977. At trial, the false testimony led to their convictions. They were sent to prison for life.

When the false testimony and other exculpatory evidence was discovered, the two innocent men, Curtis McGhee and Terry Harrington, were released after 25 years in prison. They filed a lawsuit against the prosecutors.

The question before the high court is whether the prosecutors can be held accountable in a civil trial or instead are entitled to absolute immunity from such lawsuits.

"If the allegations here are true, [the Iowa officials] engaged in prosecutorial misconduct of an execrable sort, involving a complete breach of the public trust," Solicitor General Kagan writes in her brief to the court. "But absolute immunity reflects a policy judgment that such conduct is properly addressed not through civil liability, but through a host of other deterrents and punishments."

Absolute vs. qualified immunity

Lawyers for Mr. McGhee and Mr. Harrington argue in their briefs that police officers who fabricate evidence do not enjoy such absolute protection from a civil lawsuit. They say prosecutors who actively participate in the pre-trial investigation of a case must be held to the same standard as police officers, detectives, and agents, who can be sued if they violate clearly-established constitutional rights.

"When law enforcement officers fabricate evidence with an intent to use it to deprive innocent citizens of their liberty, they violate the Constitution," writes Paul Clement, a former US Solicitor General who is arguing the case for McGhee and Harrington.

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