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There's plenty of evidence that this shield from accountability is allowing some prosecutor's offices to run roughshod over civil rights. The New York-based Innocence Project reports that prosecutorial misconduct played a role in about 40 percent of DNA exonerations over the last decade or so. Such misconduct could include knowingly putting on false testimony, withholding exculpatory evidence from defense attorneys, and coercing witnesses, among other transgressions.
I recently reported a case in reason magazine quite similar to the Goldstein case. In 2006, Church Point, Louisiana resident Ann Colomb, 57, and her three sons were wrongly convicted in federal court of running a massive drug operation out of their home, thanks largely to the testimony of several jailhouse informants.
Despite the fact that the family's home was modest, and that the sons held down several hard labor jobs and went to school during the years of the alleged conspiracy, the government witnesses — who were offered time off from their own sentences in exchange for their testimony — claimed to have cumulatively sold the family some $500,000 worth of crack each month.
The family was released from prison when it was revealed that the jailhouse witnesses in the case had participated in an information sharing network within the federal prison system. Inmates were sharing photos, case summaries, and even grand jury testimony about pending cases, memorizing the information, then offering to testify in exchange for breaks on their own prison terms.
U.S. Attorney Donald Washington's office had been made aware of this network in a prior conspiracy case, yet his subordinates went on to ask some of the same witnesses to testify in the Colomb case. Even after the extent of the network was revealed in the Colomb trial, federal prosecutors attempted to use some of them again in yet another federal drug case.
Ann Colomb is now suing Washington's office. Whether her suit will be permitted to go forward may depend on what the Supreme Court does in the Goldstein case. As it stands, the family is broke from their criminal case. Though they were cleared of all charges, the government has yet to even apologize to them, much less compensate them for the five years they were under suspicion, of the four months they served in prison.
Downgrading prosecutorial immunity would not only go a long way toward puncturing the air of invincibility that pervades some prosecutors' offices, but the discovery process in the cases that are allowed to go forward might reveal other cases of misconduct or wrongful conviction.
We shouldn't allow every aggrieved defendant to sue his prosecutor. But in cases where someone is exonerated after being convicted of a crime, where there's clear evidence that something went terribly wrong at trial, and certainly where a single prosecutor has overseen more than one exoneration, allowing civil rights suits against these government officials in their capacity as government employees might shine some needed—if uncomfortable—sunlight on a part of the criminal justice system that has for too long been immune from real accountability.
Radley Balko is a senior editor for reason. A version of this article originally appeared at FoxNews.com.