Not many people understand the absolute power of a prosecuting attorney. The prosecutor holds more power and control over people and their futures than anyone in the judicial system, including judges and juries.
They exercise absolute power and can make life-changing decisions without any regulations, reviews, or input from anyone else. The buck stops here. Prosecutorial immunity and a prosecutor's capabilities are very scary and, for many years, have gone unchecked. According to the American Bar Association's website, a prosecutor's duty includes righting wrongs,
When a prosecutor knows of clear and convincing evidence establishing that a defendant in the prosecutor's jurisdiction was convicted of an offense that the defendant did not commit, the prosecutor shall seek to remedy the conviction.
Prosecutorial ethics seem void in Missouri. Somewhere along the way, the job of a prosecutor in Missouri took on a different meaning. The true definition of how most prosecutors operate in Missouri has become "to win at all costs."
Not only has it included cases of people with overwhelming evidence of innocence, but the attorney general's office of Missouri has no qualms voicing the fact that even if someone is innocent, it is irrelevant after conviction.
This includes people facing the death penalty. Several other prosecutors and former supreme court judges in Missouri feel the oath to uphold justice has been skewed and redefined by prosecutors, with no one to keep them from doing it.
Recently there has been much attention in Missouri to the exoneration of innocent people sitting in prison their entire lives, including people waiting for an execution date on death row. The Prosecutor of Jackson County, Jean Peters Baker, commented on current Attorney General Eric Schmitt's behavior, saying,
"The attorney general acts as if his primary duty is to defend convictions, rather than abiding by the oath he and all prosecutors take to seek justice."
"It has been and continues to be one of the duties of the attorney general's office to uphold criminal convictions, and that's what we've worked to do."
Ironically the same attorney general who fights to block innocent people from being exonerated states on his website that his mission is the exact opposite,
The mission of Criminal Appeals is not merely to uphold every conviction but to ensure that criminal convictions can ultimately be viewed with confidence. To that end, attorneys approach each case with an eye toward ensuring both that justice has been done and that the rights of the accused have been adequately protected.
Judge Michael Wolff, who formerly sat on the Missouri Supreme Court, made several public comments about the extensive energy and resources the Missouri Attorney General's Office has used to fight claims of innocence. Judge Wolff summed it up by saying,
"It is kind of an article of faith on that side that a conviction is a conviction that is entitled to respect, no matter how much evidence there is that it was wrong."
Judge Wolff is not the only judge who has spoken up out of concern about the open and candid way the Missouri Attorney General's office has viewed exoneration for decades.
Former Supreme Court Judge Laura Denvir Stith presided over a case in 2003 and witnessed firsthand the assistant attorney general's view on the subject. It was a case of a defendant that faced execution but brought forth undeniable evidence of innocence. Stith questioned the assistant attorney general, asking,
Without hesitation, the assistant attorney general answered in open court,
"That is correct, your honor."
For decades this has been the case in Missouri. Prosecutors have simplified the one-sided playing field easily, considering they hold all the cards at all times. Everyone goes about daily business, and prosecutorial misconduct is accepted as the norm.
It is unclear if it is indifference because people are not personally affected by the injustice. Families of innocent people held in prison are destroyed for generations. Tricia Bushnell, executive director of the Midwest Innocence Project, explains that it doesn't affect you until it does.
Bushnell says many innocent people are currently in this situation. Over the years, 551 people sent to prison were found innocent, thanks to DNA evidence. The National Academy of Sciences suggests it's likely that around 4.1% of all death-penalty cases are wrongfully convicted people waiting for execution.
Since 1989, four people facing execution on death row were exonerated, but 92 were executed. Ethically, a prosecutor is supposed to seek justice, not prosecutions, and somehow everyone has forgotten this. No checks and balances are in place or practiced for prosecutors.
Although Eric Schmitt, Attorney General of Missouri, openly and publicly speaks about the fact that he feels it is his job to uphold all convictions regardless of the evidence showing innocence, it has not been addressed by even the Missouri Bar Association.
Where does accountability come to play for prosecutors? Marcellus Williams was granted the right to use DNA to exonerate himself in St. Louis. When the evidence results returned, it proved his innocence. Additionally, the only witness recanted and claimed payment exchanged for testimony. Instead of being released, the courts refused to hear the results of the tests they allowed him.
Williams was an hour from being executed when former Governor Greitens issued a stay on the execution. It has been five years since this happened, and Williams still sits on death row, where he has been most of his adult life.
Prosecutorial immunity, discretion, and plea bargains taint the court systems. Prosecutors are rarely held accountable for misconduct and enjoy protection by immunity. They decide if charges are filed and what plea bargain will be offered.
People are forced into deals with a promise of probation and lesser sentences and are threatened with heavy sentences if they dare to fight the prosecutors with a trial. Rarely do other lawyers run against prosecutors in elections because to do so and lose means they will have to depend on those same people to give their clients deals in the future.
This allows prosecutors to spend their whole careers in office. Accountability in every branch of the government seems to be a good start. No one should be immune to accountability. Prosecutors hold the lives and futures of Missourians in the palm of their hands.
They can put a person to death should they so choose. Why wouldn't the people of Missouri demand accountability in this role? What is your opinion of innocent people in prison and on death row?
Change comes from involvement, and involvement is easier than you think.
Click below to read part 1 of my 8-part series: Part 1: Parents find similarities in the deaths of their kids in Washington & Madison counties, Missouri & want answers.