You might think that putting an innocent person in prison for a major crime like rape or murder would end or at least impede a prosecutor’s career. But prosecutors are rarely sanctioned for mistakes, even when their misconduct is egregious. In fact, they are often re-elected, promoted to judge, or encouraged to run for political office. Sometimes they even owe these successes to the publicity they get from high-profile convictions of people who turned out to be innocent. Here are some of the worst cases of prosecutors who put more than one innocent person in prison but suffered no significant professional consequences.
The Death Row Gambler
Forrest Allgood, district attorney for four Mississippi counties
Four people Forrest Allgood has convicted of murder were later set free. Two of them served time on death row.
One was Sabrina Butler, an 18-year-old mentally retarded woman Allgood convicted of killing her infant son in 1990. Butler was retried in 1995 after the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled that Allgood had committed misconduct when he told jurors that Butler’s refusal to take the stand in her own defense was an indication of her guilt. In the retrial, the medical examiner that Allgood had used the first time around admitted to making some key mistakes, and outside examiners testified that Butler’s child likely died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome or kidney disease. Butler was acquitted and released from prison.
Another Allgood victim was Tyler Edmonds. In Ed-monds’ 2007 trial, Allgood posited that the defendant and his sister, Kristi Fulgham, had teamed up to kill Fulgham’s husband 13 years earlier. The duo, he argued, had waited until the man was asleep and then simultaneously pulled the trigger. At trial, Allgood called on controversial medical examiner Steven Hayne, who preposterously claimed that he could tell by the bullet wounds in the victim’s body that two people had held the gun. On review, the Mississippi Supreme Court threw out Hayne’s testimony and ordered a new trial. In 2008 Edmonds was retried, acquitted, and released. Kristi Fulgham was convicted in a separate trial and is still on death row.
In his 1995 prosecution of Kennedy Brewer, Allgood again solicited testimony from Hayne, this time accompanied by Hayne’s longtime sidekick, the disgraced bite mark specialist Michael West. West testified that he found bite marks on a 3-year-old murder victim that could only have been made by Brewer’s teeth. Based largely on that testimony, Brewer was convicted of raping and killing Christine Jackson, his girlfriend’s daughter, and sentenced to death. After the conviction, Allgood attempted to have the biological evidence from the case destroyed. Brewer’s lawyer objected and managed to preserve it.
A decade later, more-advanced DNA testing determined that there was semen from two men inside of Jackson, and neither of them was Kennedy Brewer. The state Supreme Court ordered a new trial. Despite the test results, Allgood planned to prosecute Brewer again. When The New York Times asked him why he hadn’t bothered checking the crime scene DNA against the state’s DNA database, Allgood replied that the state doesn’t have such a database. This came as a surprise to the man who had been running it.
Allgood’s decision to retry Brewer and his opposition to checking the crime scene evidence against the state DNA database kept Brewer in prison for another six years. When the DNA was finally checked, it revealed Christine Jackson’s murderer and showed that he had also raped and murdered another young girl two years later, just a few miles away. Allgood had used Hayne, West, and dubious bite mark testimony in that case too, convicting the wrong man. In 2008, that man, Levon Brooks, was exonerated and freed. The DNA in both cases matched a man named Justin Albert Johnson, who later confessed to both crimes.
Allgood continues to win re-election, and there are still countless people in prison based on his use of Hayne and West. One of them, Eddie Lee Howard, is still on death row.
The DNA Denialist
Michael Mermel, assistant state attorney, Lake County, Illinois
Michael Mermel has a history of standing behind his hunches, even in the face of contrary DNA evidence. In 2005, when a DNA test on an 11-year-old rape and murder victim didn’t match his suspect, Mermel argued that the victim must have been sexually active around the time of her murder.
When a DNA test in 2003 showed that the semen in the underwear of a 68-year-old woman didn’t belong to Bernie Starks, a man convicted in 1986 of raping and murdering her, Mermel dismissed the results because the semen came from the victim’s clothing. Had it come from the woman’s vagina, Mermel said, “I would be standing over there advocating the side that the defense has in the case.”
Three years later, defense attorneys found the rape kit and tested semen recovered from the woman’s vagina. Again, there was no match. Mermel again wouldn’t budge, this time arguing that the woman must have had sex with someone else just before the rape.