There is an old saying that a district attorney could get a ham sandwich indicted if he wishes.
When an indictment is issued, it is theoretically subject to being quashed, or voided. The judge is supposed to quash indictments that have serious flaws such as not being clear what the alleged illegal action is or being based on faulty law. If the defense has no idea what the actual crime being charge is, there is no way to mount a defense. The attack could be anything! This is very important because if the judge allows the faulty indictments to go to trial, no such trial could be fair. Improper indictments are supposed to be quashed (squashed) like the cockroaches they are to protect the rule of law and our society. This is what judges are paid for and it is their duty. This should not be ethically challenging for them.
And yet, for many judges, it is. Many judges take a political approach. Instead of quashing an obviously defective indictment, they let it go through in an effort the please a powerful local district attorney or connected power brokers. Accordingly, they preside over unfair trials and innocent people are found guilty.
The public has a very poor understanding about how our courts and our criminal justice system work. Although the system constantly denies this, there really is no oversight of the system. When a member says something was so, the system takes his or her word for it. This is an excellent vehicle for corruption.
Of course, not even our courts provide for consequences when we discover such behavior. To shorten a long story a jailor assaulted George Alvarez in jail. The jailor then accused Alvarez of assaulting him. The system lied to cover the jailor’s crime up. As is typical, Mr. Alvarez was threatened with a very lengthy sentence unless he confessed to the crime in return for a much lighter sentence. Mr. Alvarez did what 97% of the defendants do; he pled guilty and went to prison.
Later, evidence came forward which proved Mr. Alvarez’ innocence and the jailor’s crime. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals declared Mr. Alvarez actually innocent.
Mr. Alvarez sued in federal court and was awarded $2 million. That would have sent a powerful message to our criminal justice system to clean up its act.
Unfortunately, the US Fifth Circuit District Court of Appeals reversed that award, stating that because Mr. Alvarez pled guilty, the criminal justice system did not have to tell the truth. This ignores that Mr. Alvarez had to plead guilty precisely because our government covered up the truth. In other words, because the government had gotten away with lying about this crime, there are no consequences.
And we wonder why we have so many wrongly convicted innocent people.
Last week, we discussed how inappropriate it is for a local district attorney all by himself to file criminal complaints, to investigate, seek an indictment, and to prosecute citizens because of the danger of abuse. To protect against such abuse, most counties require that the district attorney to act only on cases brought to him or her by law enforcement.
So how about if the district attorney also has his own armed SWAT team? This sounds like a combination Stalin would approve of.
Former district attorney Judge John Roach did just this. He spent $25,306 of the taxpayers’ money (he said it was his money) on four rifles, 10 helmets, two shields, two gun safes and up to 6,000 rounds of ammunition for training over the objections of the commissioners’ court. Just what we need: another amateur armed group running around among the citizenry.
Apparently, he felt he was more qualified to lead this SWAT team than the county sheriff, the multiple local police, the national guard, and the Army. As near as anyone could tell, his primary qualification to do this was that he wore freshly laundered suits to work. So, now there was a district attorney who initiated his own complaints, sought indictments, investigated the complaints, had his own private police force answerable to him, and prosecuted the cases. His police wore vests which said “District Attorney Police”. So what were the checks and balances?
Imagine if a person had the authority to single a person out, then spend unlimited tax payer dollars to prosecute that person with the full force of the State. It is obvious such a system would be susceptible to rampant political abuse. For this reason, honest district attorneys do not initiate investigation of a crime but instead, wait for an authority such as the police to bring a complaint before them.
Even then, district attorneys are supposed to use professional judgment to insure cases pursued actually have merit.
There have been district attorneys who have initiated complaints, investigated them, and then prosecuted them. Since they manage their budget, the results are not surprising. This is an excellent way to remove political opponents or reward supporters, assuming of course, one is not bothered by ethics.
When we see district attorneys initiating their own cases, we ought to be deeply suspicious. There is no reason for this and plenty of reasons to be concerned about this.