The Supreme Court recently decided that it take up a Los Angeles case to decide whether a chief prosecutor can be held liable for a man’s wrongful conviction for murder.
The case of Van de Kamp vs. Goldstein will test the reach of the rule, set down by the Court in 1976 that prosecutors are immune from being sued, even when defendants are shown to be innocent. Prosecutors, like judges, must be free to do their jobs without fear of being sued later, the high court said in the case of Imbler v. Patchman (1976) 424 U.S. 409. This rule of “absolute immunity” applies whenever a prosecutor “acts within the scope of his prosecutorial duties,” the Court said in Imbler.
What is not clear, though, is whether this immunity rule protects supervising prosecutors against suits over alleged management failures in the prosecutor’s office. Thomas L. Goldstein, a Marine Corps veteran from Long Beach who spent 24 years in prison before his murder conviction was overturned in 2004, is not asking the Supreme Court to overrule Imbler. Instead, he argues that Imbler should be limited to prosecutors who actually appear in court, and should not be extended to supervisors who set policies for the prosecutor’s office.
After being released from state prison, Goldstein sued John Van de Kamp, who was the Los Angeles County DA when Goldstein was prosecuted. He alleged that Van de Kamp and his top deputy DA allowed prosecutors throughout the county to make use of unreliable jailhouse informants in prosecuting defendants. To make matters worse, at the time, Los Angeles County had no system in place to keep track of whether these jailhouse snitches had been offered immunity or leniency for their testimony.
In Goldstein’s case, Edward Fink, a repeat offender, was put on the witness stand to testify that Goldstein, while in a holding cell, had confessed to a shooting. Goldstein maintained his innocence, and years later, it was revealed that the informant lied when he denied receiving favors from prosecutors in exchange for his testimony.
Lawyers for Van de Kamp said the suit should be dismissed because Van de Kamp is protected by prosecutorial immunity as set forth in the Imbler case. But both the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, as well as the United States Court of Appeals, both refused to dismiss the case. Both courts ruled that prosecutors could be sued for management failures.
“We conclude that Goldstein’s allegations are administrative and not prosecutorial in function. [They] bear a close connection to how the district attorney’s office was managed, not to whether or how to prosecute a particular case,” ruled the Ninth Circuit.
By coincidence, the Supreme Court’s 1976 ruling in the Imbler case also arose from a murder case in Los Angeles. Paul Imbler was charged with killing the owner of a Los Angeles market in a 1961 robbery, although Mr. Imbler he had a strong alibi defense. Mr. Imbler was scheduled to be executed September of 1962 when the prosecutor in his case, Richard Pachtman, wrote to the governor saying new evidence cast doubt on Imbler’s guilt in the case.
Imbler’s execution was stayed, and, after several years, Imbler’s conviction was overturned and he was freed. In 1972, Imbler filed a civil suit that named Deputy DA Pachtman and sought a substantial monetary award for false imprisonment.
The Supreme Court ruled, in a unanimous opinion, that “a prosecutor enjoys absolute immunity” from lawsuits and its opinion said this rule extended back centuries into English law.
Allowing lawsuits “would pose a substantial danger of liability even to the honest prosecutor,” and “would require a virtual retrial of the criminal offense” before a civil jury.
In Monday’s order, the justices said they would hear the case of Van de Kamp vs. Goldstein to decide the limits of the “absolute immunity” rule set in Imbler vs. Pachtman. Oral arguments will be heard in the fall.