A criminal defendant who was wrongfully convicted of murder cannot sue prosecutors for their delay in disclosing the exculpatory results of post-conviction DNA test results, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held Nov. 13 in Warney v. Monroe County, available here.
The court decided that the prosecutors were acting in furtherance of their role as advocates for the state when they made their decision regarding the timing of their disclosure, thus entitling them to absolute immunity from civil liability for their conduct.
"Advocates for the state"? Hmm; I thought prosecutors are supposed to be "ministers of justice" not mere advocates....
In this case, a mentally retarded man was convicted of murder. While he pursued post-conviction relief, the prosecutor received a written report revealing that—contrary to their theory at trial—all the blood at the scene (other than the victim's) belonged to one person and that one person was not the defendant. The prosecutors did not, however, disclose this information until 72 days after they had received the initial report. Eventually, the defendant was released and he filed a federal civil rights lawsuit claiming that prosecutors' foot-dragging prolonged his incarceration in violation of his right to due process.
The Court found the prosecutor was functioning as an advocate, rather than as an investigator or administrator, when he engaged in the conduct at issue and, thus, is protected from liability.
The Second Circuit observed that distinguishing between advocacy and administration is especially difficult with respect to prosecutors' conduct in collateral proceedings because “the ‘judicial phase’ is technically finished” but held that the prosecutor deserved “absolute immunity because his conduct was part of "the prosecutor's role as an advocate for the state.”
Thanks to the Legal Ethics Forum for the information.