In another terrific vignette about the harm of prosecutorial misconduct, Radley Balko looks at two exonerations out of Clark County, Washington in his latest post titled, “This Week in Innocence” at The Huffington Post. Balko dismisses the assumption that wrongful convictions are just the inevitable mistakes of a flawed criminal justice system. Rather, he argues, they are a product of unethical police and prosecutor practices that get overlooked for expediency’s sake.
In a $10.5 million dollar settlement last month, two men – Larry Davis, 57, of Vancouver and Alan Northrop, 49, of Woodland – finally won an acknowledgement from the Clark County District Attorney’s Office that the state was responsible for their wrongful convictions and the 17 years they spent in prison for a rape they did not commit.
Davis and Northrop were convicted and sentenced to more than 20 years for the 1993 rape of a housekeeper in La Center, WA. DNA evidence later vindicated the men of any wrongdoing, and they were freed from prison in 2010.
Balko says of the police detective who investigated the case against the two men:
…the convictions of Larry Davis and Alan Northrop were largely the work of Det. Don Slagle, who not only pursued them on flimsy evidence while ignoring other leads, but failed to disclose the possibility of other suspects to defense attorneys. Det. Slagle also had a history. And Clark County, Washington, had a history of ignoring that history.
…Despite Slagle’s history, the fact that he had withheld exculpatory evidence and the DNA tests, the county still fought in court to avoid awarding Davis and Northrop any compensation. Why? A county prosecutor argued in court that “just because the DNA did not match does not mean Northrop and Davis did not commit the crime.” Right. Let a criminal suspect try to make the reverse argument. See what happens.
Balko argues that aside from the harm done in the instant case, untold harm has surely occurred in other cases that Slagle worked up and Clark County prosecutors were willing to prosecute, despite the detective’s shady track record. The problems which give rise to wrongful convictions like this do not occur in isolation, he says, they are systemic. And those cases where DNA cannot be found (which is the overwhelming majority of criminal cases) will be less likely to show up evidence of state misconduct. Balko warns, innocent people are at risk as long as the system allows unethical behavior to be swept under the rug.