You know how much I love quoting Ronald Reagan. (Kidding.) (No offense, Tea Party friends.) Here’s a good one: “We must reject the idea that every time a law's broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker. It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions.”
I’m guessing he believed that cigarette smokers, as one example, fell into that “individual accountability” category. But what if the law breakers are the people who are supposed to be enforcing the law? Should they be accountable? Which brings us to last night’s 60 Minutes, and a couple other hot topics.
The show last night was about the exoneration of Michael Morton, wrongly convicted of murdering his wife in 1987. He was freed after 25 years in prison based on DNA evidence, thanks to the hard work of the Innocence Project.
But, reports 60 Minutes, Morton’s attorneys, “recently discovered something astonishing: sitting in his prosecutor's file all those years was evidence that could have established Morton's innocence during his trial.” That evidence was a police report, relating how Morton’s then 3-year-old son, who witnessed the murder, described in detail the guy who really killed his mother, and it wasn’t Michael Morton. The DA who apparently failed to turn the report over to Morton at the time, Ken Anderson, later “was named prosecutor of the year in Texas and since 2002 he's been a district judge in the same court where Michael Morton was convicted. All those years, Morton languished in prison.”
Here’s some of the conversation between 60 Minutes correspondent Lara Logan and Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project, and Logan and Anderson’s lawyer, Eric Nichols:
Lara Logan: So just to be clear, from both of you, you believe that Ken Anderson, the prosecutor in Michael's case, willfully, deliberately withheld evidence.
Barry Scheck: We believe that there's probable cause to believe that he violated a court order, withheld exculpatory evidence, and violated other laws of the State of Texas.
In February, a Texas judge agreed with Michael Morton's legal team that there was probable cause to believe Ken Anderson violated the law, and Anderson is now the subject of a special criminal inquiry. That's extremely rare. Studies have shown prosecutors are hardly ever criminally charged or disciplined for serious error or misconduct. And one thing Ken Anderson doesn't have to worry about is being sued for damages by Michael Morton because the Supreme Court has ruled that prosecutors have "absolute immunity" from civil lawsuits for their legal work.
Lara Logan: Doctors, lawyers, policemen, there are all kinds of people who do their job with limited immunity or no immunity. It just seems hard to understand why prosecutors have to have a different standard to everybody else.
Eric Nichols: Seeing that justice is done, in many instances, requires very difficult judgments. And to come back behind those prosecutors and second guess them, or sue them would throw a wrench into that system of prosecutors seeking justice.
Lara Logan: I have to say, there's a certain irony in hearing you say it's the job of a prosecutor to seek justice, right? Because in this particular case, that's exactly what Michael Morton did not get. …
Michael Morton: I don't have a lotta things really driving me. But one of the things is, I don't want this to happen to anybody else. Revenge isn't the issue here. Revenge, I know, doesn't work. But accountability works. It's what balances out. It's the equilibrium. It's the social glue in a way. Because if you're not count-- accountable, then you can do anything.
Pay attention, corporate and medical lobbies pushing for laws to limit their liability for wrongdoing, so-called "tort reform." He's talking about you. As Logan notes, accountability doesn’t just mean criminal accountability but also, civil liability - something we touched on last week in our post about how the civil justice system can sometimes step in where the criminal justice fails. That is, except if the destructive, corporate-backed, right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) (which we’ve covered many times, like here, here, here) has anything to do with it.
Paul Krugman's column in today’s New York Times, called "Lobbyists Guns and Money," hits it out of the park with a great piece about how ALEC is responsible for the spread of Stand Your Ground laws (among many other horrendous laws), which many believe not only contributed to the killing of Trayvon Martin but also, the failure by police to arrest his killer. Writes Krugman:
Florida’s now-infamous Stand Your Ground law, which lets you shoot someone you consider threatening without facing arrest, let alone prosecution, sounds crazy — and it is. And it’s tempting to dismiss this law as the work of ignorant yahoos. But similar laws have been pushed across the nation, not by ignorant yahoos but by big corporations.
Specifically, language virtually identical to Florida’s law is featured in a template supplied to legislators in other states by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a corporate-backed organization that has managed to keep a low profile even as it exerts vast influence (only recently, thanks to yeoman work by the Center for Media and Democracy, has a clear picture of ALEC’s activities emerged). And if there is any silver lining to Trayvon Martin’s killing, it is that it might finally place a spotlight on what ALEC is doing to our society — and our democracy. …
But where does the encouragement of vigilante (in)justice fit into this picture? In part it’s the same old story — the long-standing exploitation of public fears, especially those associated with racial tension, to promote a pro-corporate, pro-wealthy agenda. It’s neither an accident nor a surprise that the National Rifle Association and ALEC have been close allies all along.
There’s a lot more in Krugman’s piece about the corrupting influence of corporate money behind ALEC’s work. So where does civil liability fit into this picture? Well, forget prosecutor immunity laws. These Stand Your Ground laws turn everyday people into prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner, and then immunize them not just from criminal prosecution but also civil liability. Just like dirty prosecutors in Texas are protected. Just like the corporate members of ALEC are protected from civil liability when they commit wrongdoing, thanks to laws written and pushed by ALEC's civil justice task force, chaired by our friend Victor Schwartz, the General Counsel of the American Tort Reform Association. Here’s Victor, below. As they say, everything’s connected.