According to a new report from the Las Vegas Review Journal, the “culture of secrecy” and failure to turn over exculpatory evidence within the Clark County District Attorney’s office remains firmly in place a year after it was revealed that the office had for decades been using a secret bank account to fund undisclosed payments to prosecution witnesses.
Last year we highlighted the Review Journal report on those revelations, which detailed the remarkable scheme to pay rent, settle debts, and even pay the costs of relocation to prosecution witnesses, largely out of private, donated funds, without disclosing the payments to defense counsel. The fund was never approved by the County Commission, and in one 2008 instance, was used to relocate a witness five times in a single year, while a County spokesman maintained there was no witness relocation program.
In a follow-up report published this past weekend, the newspaper draws a damning portrait of DA Steve Wolfson’s office still failing to live up to its constitutional obligations, and defending its own apparent misconduct.
More than 50 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled prosecutors must hand over evidence in a case, especially if it could be favorable to the defense. But that doesn’t always happen in Las Vegas. In fact, Clark County prosecutors in some cases have hidden evidence about additional suspects, denied cutting deals with criminal informants and failed to hand over information about their witnesses’ criminal pasts.
That this paragraph could, regrettably, describe so many jurisdictions in the United States, from New Orleans to Orange County, CA to Pierce County, WA, and many others less reported on, makes it no less scandalous.
As long as a decade ago, according to the Review Journal, federal judge David Hagen found that the Clark County DA’s office lacked “an institutional procedure or policy by means of which it may ensure its ‘open file’ contains everything which it is required to disclose.”
Despite this, and the revelations about the witness payments, the paper quotes Franny Forsman, who ran the Federal Public Defender’s office in the county for 22 years as saying nothing has changed.
“Whether its negligence, gross negligence or intentional, whatever it is you’ve got a long history of failures in the system,” Forsman said. “Until judges intervene, it won’t stop. There’s too much of an incentive to just keep going the way you’ve been going because there is no downside.”
One of the more egregious examples detailed in the new report involves the case of Gregory Leonard, convicted of murder two decades ago. While the state admitted at trial to helping a witness, Jesus Cintron, in myriad ways, from getting his child support payments delayed, paying for rent and groceries, and getting his car released from impoundment, it failed to disclose a host of further assistance.
Every time Cintron would get arrested — charges ranged from destruction of property to attempting to lure girls into his car and even to lying to police — he would bring up that he was a key witness in a double murder, according to court filings. Then, the district attorney’s office would help him get out of jail, Anthony [the post-conviction public defender] found.
Anthony revealed the extent of the district attorney’s involvement with its witness by piecing together sticky notes and judge’s bench notes about “off-the-record” conversations with the prosecutor…
Leen [the prosecutor] — who is now a federal judge — elicited false testimony from Cintron about how much her office had helped him out, and that he’d complied with the judge’s obligations in his own cases, Anthony argued in federal court filings. She told a judge she’d given over all of the information, in detail, and the assistance was deemed to be minor.
Rather than reexamining its approach to questionable disclosure practices, the Review Journal reports, Scott Wolfson’s office has continued to argue on appeal in the Leonard Case, with an all-too-familiar illogic, that (a) Cintron didn’t receive special treatment; (b) the defense could have discovered this (non-existent) special treatment earlier; and (c) the disclosure of this (non-existent) special treatment wouldn’t have changed the jury verdict.
As to the broader issue of the witness payments, Wolfson maintains it is a “non-issue,” according to the paper, because it wasn’t secret. In another feat of circular reasoning, the evidence his office puts forward to back this claim is the Leonard case, and one other, in which public defenders forced the issue into the open.
Anthony likened it to saying, “We are relying on rumor and innuendo to spread itself.” Clark County public defender Phil Kohn, whose office is on the frontlines of the cases the DA prosecutes, agrees that can’t count as disclosure.
“I don’t know if we’ll ever find the full breadth of what they were doing. Not just the payments. When you have an out of control DA’s office how do you get the Department of Justice to grab all of their files?” Kohn said. “We don’t know how much they’ve given people — not just given them money — but how many times the DA’s said there’s no deal — but there was a wink and a nod.”
Wolfson, a Democrat, was appointed DA by the County Commissioners in 2012, but must win an election next year to earn a full term. He kicked off his campaign last month, and thus far has no opponents.