June 19, 2017
“Our criminal justice famously presumes that every accused person is innocent until proven guilty. But once a conviction is obtained, that presumption is turned on its head. Charges were brought, and a jury, which saw evidence and heard from the witnesses firsthand, voted to convict. At that point, finality sets in.
“Prosecutors tasked with defending a conviction against compelling evidence that it was wrongfully secured typically have two choices. They can accept the responsibility for participating — directly or indirectly — in an injustice, or they can insist that nothing went awry or that whatever mistakes may have been made were ‘immaterial’– that is, the jury would have convicted anyway. The justice system strongly pushes them in the latter direction. Ambitious, hard-charging prosecutors know that the way to the top is amassing guilty verdicts, not admitting mistakes. In 47 states [including North Carolina], their bosses – the county district attorney, the state’s attorney general – are elected. Incompetence, or appearing ‘soft on crime,’ can be fatal at the ballot box….
“The refusal to admit a mistake – or even an act of bad faith – holds true regardless of whether the prosecutor defending the conviction had any involvement at the trial level, personally knew the key players or even worked in the same office…. This may be due, in part, to a phenomenon that [Northeastern University law professor Daniel Medwed] calls ‘the conformity effect.’ Prosecutors… are ‘culturally aligned with that side and tend to defer to their peers who were the original decision makers.’ “
– From “For shame” by Lara Bazelon at Slate (April 7, 2016)
Although examples of such prosecutorial lockstep are legion, most relevant here is N.C. Attorney General Mike Easley’s response to the overturning of the convictions of Little Rascals defendants Bob Kelly and Dawn Wilson. Easley, himself a former district attorney (and future governor), laid it on thick:
“The decision casts no doubt on the credibility of the children or the integrity of the investigation…. In both cases, the facts supporting the convictions were clear and overwhelming. [The N.C. Court of Appeals] disregarded these facts and misapplied the law.”
Four months later, throwing in the towel after the N.C. Supreme Court upheld the Court of Appeals, Easley managed to find fault not with the prosecutors but with the children. “All prosecutors know that cases involving children weaken with age,” he said. “A retrial in this matter will be extremely difficult.”