Prosecutorial Fallibility and Accountability

Policy Forum
November 7, 2017
4:00PM to 6:00PM EST
Hayek Auditorium, Cato Institute
Featuring Rob Cary, Partner at Williams & Connolly, and author of Not Guilty: The Unlawful Prosecution of U.S. Senator Ted Stevens; Howard Root, Former CEO, Vascular Solutions, and author of Cardiac Arrest: Five Heart-Stopping Years as a CEO on the Feds’ Hit-List; and Michael J. Daugherty, Founder and president, LabMD, and author of The Devil Inside the Beltway: The Shocking Exposé of the U.S. Government’s Surveillance and Overreach into Cybersecurity, Medicine and Small Business; moderated by Clark Neily, Vice President for Criminal Justice, Cato Institute.

Prosecutors and other government lawyers who enforce our nation’s laws wield vast power and exercise tremendous discretion with little oversight or accountability. For example, more than 95 percent of criminal convictions are now obtained through plea bargaining instead of jury trials. As a result, citizen participation in our criminal justice system has effectively been eliminated and with it much of the oversight that the Constitution’s framers intended. Even when cases do go to trial, it is possible — and, some have argued, disturbingly common — for prosecutors to further tilt the playing field in their favor by failing to disclose potentially exculpatory evidence, influencing witnesses with threats or inducements, and manipulating juries with improper arguments. Unfortunately, when government lawyers do commit misconduct, it is extremely rare for them to be punished or indeed even publicly identified. Finally, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that prosecutors are absolutely immune from civil lawsuits, even for willful violations of people’s rights, such as deliberately prosecuting someone they know to be innocent and suborning perjury to obtain an unjust conviction.

As a result, two important questions arise: (1) Are the existing checks on prosecutorial misconduct strong enough to ensure fairness in criminal and regulatory proceedings; and (2) are Americans well-served by our current system of near-zero accountability for prosecutors and other government lawyers? Our panelists have written powerful and often deeply shocking books about their firsthand experiences with that system and the damage it does to the cause of justice.