Travis Kelly
Grand Junction Free Press Opinion Columnist

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February 28, 2013
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T. KELLY: Unethical prosecutors a plague on our justice system

There are many forms of living hell in this world that people can fall victim to, but what happened to former Mesa Country resident Robert Dewey has to be one of the worst. Last year, Dewey was freed after spending 18 years in prison for a vicious rape/murder that he did not commit.

Advances in DNA testing technology and a reexamination of his case by the state's Justice Review Project led to his exoneration and the prosecution of another man for the crime.

The case has inspired new legislation now being drafted in Denver - the "Compensation for a Person Wrongly Convicted of a Crime and Acquitted by DNA Evidence" bill. Twenty-seven other states have such programs, mandating compensation for such victims. To date, there have been a staggering 297 cases of exoneration by new DNA testing nationwide, many of them pushed through by the New York-based The Innocence Project.

The Colorado bill would grant victims like Dewey $50,000 for each year of wrongful imprisonment, plus immediate living expenses upon his release, medical care, counseling, work training and affordable housing. Dewey was released with nothing more than the prison shirt on his back, while paroled convicts are given much more than that.

This needed legislation will pass in some form, but it and similar laws in other states do nothing to deter overzealous and unethical prosecutors from railroading innocent men into prison in the first place. The Dewey case may not have been such an instance, but there are far too many cases around the country of such outrageous prosecutorial misconduct.

The Duke Lacrosse players rape case comes to mind. The DA in that case, Mike Nifong, was found guilty of withholding test results showing that DNA retrieved from the victim's body and underwear came from four unknown males, with none matching the 46 lacrosse team members. In his zeal to grandstand before the press in a high-profile case and portray himself as the avenger of racial violence, Nifong lost sight of his basic mission - to pursue justice. He was subsequently, and rightly, disbarred. But such repercussions are rare; many DAs, police departments and judges are loath to revisit old cases and confront the possibility of corruption and gross misconduct in their ranks, and do everything in their power to prevent such disclosure.

The state with the worst record for wrongful convictions is Texas, with Dallas County particularly notorious. Recently, Michael Morton who spent almost 30 years in a Texas prison for the murder of his wife was exonerated by new DNA evidence. But it's clear that he should never have been prosecuted and convicted in the first place. The State Bar of Texas found that the DA in the 1987 case, Ken Anderson, now a State District Judge, withheld exculpatory evidence from the defense and specifically disobeyed the trial judge's order to give such evidence to the defense. That evidence included testimony by Morton's mother-in-law indicating that the couple's 3-year-old son had witnessed the murder and said that his father was not home at the time, and that some other "monster" had killed his mother. Anderson also withheld a neighbor's statement about a stranger parking his van in front of the house and disappearing into a wooded area.

The Texas State Bar is now conducting an inquiry into Anderson's actions, and it's possible that, like Mike Nifong, he may be disbarred. But Anderson has taken no personal responsibility for this miscarriage of justice; he has stated that "the system obviously screwed up." No, Mr. Anderson, it was not the "system" that "screwed up," but you who committed an atrocious act by knowingly sending an innocent man to hell for 30 years. By my reckoning, disbarment is not a sufficient punishment for such "misconduct."

For certain, prosecutors must be able to do their jobs without being held liable for every mistaken eyewitness statement, or other ambiguities and errors that could result in an innocent person being convicted of a crime. But that is not the issue. For prosecutors who deliberately withhold exculpatory evidence in order to gain a conviction at any cost, who value promoting their political careers over any basic sense of right and wrong, there should be a much more effective deterrent to such sociopathic behavior: The offending prosecutor should spend a term in prison equal to that suffered by his victim.

I think that would go a long way to putting an end to such travesties, but given that our laws are formulated predominantly by a close-knit fraternity of lawyers, I won't expect to see it any time soon.

Travis Kelly is a web/graphic designer, writer and cartoonist in Grand Junction. See his work or contact him at www.traviskelly.com.


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The Post Independent Updated Feb 28, 2013 05:51PM Published Feb 28, 2013 02:25PM Copyright 2013 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.