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Cross-posted in The Wizard of Laws
"And then I was really like, holy macaroni."
This was the reaction of a Michigan judge upon learning that one of the witnesses in the prosecution of two drug dealers was actually an informant, that the prosecutor withheld the information from defense attorneys, and that police officers lied about it on the witness stand. To compound matters, the judge went along with the deception, claiming that if the witness's true role was disclosed, "he would be dead tomorrow."
The judge, the prosecutor, and the police officers are now charged with various crimes centered about perjured testimony in the trials of two drug dealers in 2005. As detailed here and elsewhere, an informant tipped police about the existence and location of a large quantity of cocaine, along with plans for moving it. When the "movers" arrived, police were waiting, and they arrested everyone. The informant was also arrested, to protect his role in the affair.
During the subsequent trial, two police officers lied on the stand, testifying that they did not know about the informant's role in advance. In fact, the informant was paid for his information. The prosecutor knew the testimony was false, so she approached the judge and discussed it with the judge -- alone -- in the judge's chambers, although a sealed transcript was made of the conversation. The judge agreed to go along with the deception, purportedly out of fear for the informant's safety.
So. let's review the cast of our little drama:
-- 2 drug dealers with 47 kilos (about 103 pounds) of cocaine, worth approximately $27 million;
-- a paid police informant;
-- two police officers who knew of the informant's status and involvement, but lied about it on the witness stand;
-- a prosecutor who was aware of the perjury and met with the judge in order to conceal it; and
-- a judge who, once apprised of the perjury, went along with the cover-up.
This is our criminal justice system? How screwed up have things become when the prosecution and the police lie in order to convict two drug dealers (who were caught redhanded, by the way) and the judge goes along with it? Has "the ends justify the means" leached completely into the courts from our political system?
You may ask, what is the relevance of the informant's status? It goes to the initial stakeout, stop, and arrest, and whether the police had probable cause to arrest and search the defendants. If probable cause did not exist, any evidence seized (namely, the 47 kilos of cocaine) would be declared inadmissible, and the charges would go up in smoke. So, in order to get a conviction, the prosecution had to preserve the admissibility of the evidence seized during the arrest, and their zeal (or incompetence or fear) led to the perjury and the cover-up.
For her part, the judge believed that the prosecutor was not "good enough to handle that case," and said she feared the informant would wind up dead if his status was disclosed to the defense attorneys, whom she "just didn't trust."
The actions of the police, the prosecutor, and the judge cannot simply be chalked up to a desire to get bad guys off the streets. Undoubtedly, that was part of it, but such a desire cannot override the law. When she assumed her post, the judge took the following oath:
I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the constitution of this state, and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office of [judge]according to the best of my ability.
This oath, prescribed by our state Constitution, does not say that the judge can support the Constitution sometimes, or when compliance will be easy. The judge's oath imposes ongoing duties and obligations that cannot be shirked. A judge's job is not easy and often entails very difficult decisions with no clear answer. Concealing perjury, however, is never an option.
The same goes for the prosecutor and the police. There is no indication that they could not have gotten the convictions if they had revealed the informant's true role, and the defendants later pleaded guilty. While they should not have taken affirmative steps to put the informant in danger, they cannot lie, not even to save him from a fate that may have been preordained when he chose to involve himself in the world of big-time drug dealing.
With all the tremendously important issues implicated in this case, however, I can't help thinking that we should not have someone on the bench who reacts to surprise developments by saying, "Holy macaroni!"
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