60 Minutes on CBS just ran a fascinating story about Glenn Ford, a man who was sentenced to death in Louisiana and spent 30 years on death row there. I urge you to watch the entire segment, as it gives a stark glimpse into the world of the American criminal justice system, particularly the relationship between prosecutors and defendants and what the true role of the prosecuting attorney is.
To sum up, the prosecutor in the case, Marty Stroud, now says he sent an innocent man to death row because he was “was arrogant, narcissistic, caught up in the culture of winning.” He had evidence that strongly pointed to the innocence of Ford, including an eyewitness who admitted she was coerced by police to fabricate a statement and a complete lack of physical evidence tying Ford to the crime, but Stroud continued the case against Ford until his conviction. Truth, he said, meant nothing; only winning the case and padding his professional resume was important.
This draws attention to the broader fact of the power that prosecutors have in this country. When you have people like Stroud and Charles Sebesta–who falsified evidence to get Anthony Graves convicted and was just recently disbarred–determining the fate of people who have time and time again been mistreated and abused by the system, you just know something isn’t right. The role of the defense attorney is to make sure the State is kept honest and proves their case beyond a reasonable doubt; even the Devil gets his day in court, after all.
Now, are the vast majority of prosecutors good and honorable people who are out to do justice? Absolutely. But to say that every assistant DA is immune to the “culture of winning” in DA offices around the country is a pretty big stretch. You might be asking, what can we do about this? How do we fix it? I believe it starts with holding elected officials accountable for what their prosecutors do or don’t do. Individual citizens need to be aware of who, exactly, is running for the position of District Attorney in their county, do the research, and figure out if the buck is going to stop with them or not. Because ultimately, the culture in a given district attorney’s office is wholly controlled by, you guessed it, the District Attorney.
More and more we are hearing about police and prosecutorial misconduct, no doubt due largely to the massive upswing in social media and connectivity that the Internet provides. But we must always keep vigilant. Who watches the watchmen? We do.