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Pottawattamie County v. McGhee (updated)

This is not an Obama eligibility case but it raises a tangentially similar issue.

Oral arguments were heard before the US Supreme Court today in the case of  Pottawattamie County v. McGhee.

McGhee was one of two young black men arrested for murder, tried, convicted and sentenced to life in prison. The conviction was recently overturned by the Iowa Supreme Court after McGhee served 25 years of his sentence. This was not just a case of a mistake of the justice system. This case alleges intentional fabrication of evidence by the prosecutor (and an attempt to keep the real killer, a relative of a town official, out of jail). The question presented is:

Whether a prosecutor may be subjected to a civil trial and potential damages for a wrongful conviction and incarceration where the prosecutor allegedly (1) violated a criminal defendant’s “substantive due process” rights by procuring false testimony during the criminal investigation, and then (2) introduced that same testimony against the criminal defendant at trial.

In the United States, prosecutors have virtually absolute immunity from lawsuits and this case tries to carve out a slim exception to that immunity (where the fabrication of evidence happened before the trial). It’s unclear which way the court is leaning.

Here is a case of a person suffering an injury in fact, being in jail for 25 years on a trumped up charge, and having no legal recourse against the person who intentionally caused that injury. The government argued: “…there is no constitutional right not to be framed.” Unlike the plaintiffs in the Obama eligibility cases, Mr. McGhee suffered an injury in fact that was specific and personal to him. But like the Obama plaintiffs, there is no remedy in the courts (at least not so far).

In both situations, granting relief to McGhee or a hearing on the merits to Obama eligibility deniers would likely open up a floodgate of litigation. The difference is that the Obama eligibility deniers have somewhere else to redress their grievances (the Congress),  and that McGhee does not.

Update:

The suit was settled out of court for $12 million split between the two wrongfully convicted men, before the Supreme Court had a chance to rule on it.

2 Responses to Pottawattamie County v. McGhee (updated)

  1. avatar
    wendy November 5, 2009 at 3:07 am #

    I happen to live in Dallas county, which has the highest rate of DNA overturned false convictions in the nation, as well as personal experience with family member harmed by perjury in a court case (civil).
    The common thread is false info corrupting the Judicial system.. whether it is false convictions, perjury, or the glut of lawsuits, trying to overturn Obama. And accounts for my interest in legal research.
    But.. no, I DO NOT understand prosecutor immunity, when it clearly is shown that they violated the law themselves.

  2. avatar
    Chris November 5, 2009 at 2:28 pm #

    I think it’s important to note the differences between this case and the birther cases that were rejected on the basis of standing. The doctrine of prosecutorial immunity is a court-developed doctrine that is not constitutionally based. By contrast, standing is constitutionally based (in the case or controversy requirement in Article III). Congress could overturn prosecutorial immunity by e.g. amending 42 USC 1983 to expressly limit or narrow the court-developed doctrine of prosecutorial immunity. However, Congress could not overturn the standing requirement. That would require a constitutional amendment.