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In a case that adds yet another variant to the proliferation of news reports of people released after decades of prison owing to prosecutorial misconduct, a Philadelphia man serving life without parole has been released after 43 years, in an apparent attempt by prosecutors to forestall what could have been a judicial order for his release.

In 1972, Clarence Davis, now 64, was convicted of robbing and murdering a Philadelphia bar owner.  According to Philly.com:

During his 1972 trial, two men testified against Davis and stated under oath that they had not been given any promise of leniency by prosecutors in other criminal cases for their testimony.

In 2008, one of those men, Jerome Watson, allegedly recanted in a signed statement…With the help of family and friends, Davis obtained court records showing testimony in other criminal cases in which the prosecution appeared to acknowledge in court that the two men received leniency for their testimony against Davis.

In February, Superior Court sided with Davis and ordered that a lower court conduct an evidentiary hearing to evaluate Watson’s recantation and the alleged secret testimony deals.

This past week, rather than face this hearing, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office offered Davis a plea bargain–four decades after it first prosecuted him.  Plead guilty to third-degree murder, the robbery, and gun charges, and leave prison for time served, and seven years of probation.

In what Robin Godfrey, an ADA on the case, called “a legitimate admission of guilt,” Davis took the plea, and walked out of Graterford Prison last Friday night.  In what seems a clear case of face-saving, she added, “It avoids putting the victims through another trial, where there is a possibility of a ‘not guilty’ verdict because of the age of the case.”

Perhaps.  It’s also possible that the DA preferred a plea and time served to yet another headline of a man released from prison because of prosecutorial malfeasance.  In this instance, the allegations included failing to disclose deals for leniency in return for testimony, and suborning perjury by getting witnesses to testify there had been no deals.

But what is perhaps most interesting about this case, is the means by which the man convicted, through years of his own legal work, managed to buttress the evidence offered by the witness recantation itself.  He managed to find “testimony in other criminal cases in which the prosecution appeared to acknowledge in court that the two men received leniency for their testimony against Davis.”

In other words, not only did the prosecution apparently withhold key impeachment evidence, they did it with such impunity that they seemingly thought nothing of citing the very deals they denied in other proceedings.

In this new moment of changing attitudes toward our entire criminal justice system, the national media is still likely to favor coverage of “pure” innocence claims, in which DNA or other forensic evidence rules out a defendant categorically.

But any change of attitude that is ever going to amount to a change of law and policy, not to mention respect for the constitution, has to grapple with the far more common, but less morally tidy circumstance that the Davis case is an example of: the everyday abuse of power that sends people away not for crimes they had no role in whatsoever, but for more crime than the government can prove without violating its ethical duties.  Clarence Davis spent forty three years in prison for a 1st degree murder he might well never have been convicted of if he’d received a fair trial.

If we’re committed to combating prosecutorial misconduct, we need to pay as much attention to a case like this, as to the complete innocence cases that more frequently garner wider attention.

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