A prosecutor's heartfelt mea culpa follows a death row exoneration

Three decades later, a death penalty prosecutor reflects on his errors

A year ago, the state of Louisiana, in the face of overwhelming evidence that an all-white jury had wrongfully convicted a black defendant of murder, released Glenn Ford from the state’s death row three decades after it first sent him there. Now, as the state compounds that injury with the insult of trying to weasel out of compensating Ford for the lost decades, the case’s lead prosecutor, A.M. “Marty” Stroud III, has written a remarkable mea culpa about his role in destroying Ford’s life.

Stroud's piece should be required reading for all prosecutors.

The details of the case are here, but in a nutshell, Ford was railroaded by investigators, saddled with appointed defense counsel inexperienced with criminal trial work, and convicted based on evidence and testimony that stretches credulity. And the jury, it should be noted, was all white because the prosecutor struck all the African Americans in the pool from the final panel, something he would be barred from doing today (and which, in hindsight, he regrets having done then). Who knows whether blacks on the jury would have made a difference, but that aspect was just one of many injustices done to Ford by the state of Louisiana.

“In state postconviction proceedings, new lawyers presented evidence that the State suppressed information that corroborated Mr. Ford's story that he was not present at or involved in the murder, including information from an informant, a suppressed police report related to the time of the crime, and evidence of the murder weapon, which implicated the true perpetrator -- one of the other two men originally charged with Mr. Ford,” according to the Equal Justice Initiative. “Three expert witnesses also presented evidence that undermined the State's ‘expert’ trial testimony, but the trial court denied relief, and the Louisiana Supreme Court affirmed.”

Eventually, Ford persuaded the court that he was innocent, a claim bolstered by an informant who told investigators that another man initially charged with Ford had confessed to the killing. It shouldn’t have taken that long for the criminal justice system to actually achieve justice, which is what, as citizens, should most alarm us.

Part of the problem with the system is that all too often it is more about winning than about finding truth and achieving justice. Stroud, in his piece written for the Shreveport Times (I encourage you to go read the entire piece), lays bare the failings, and the guilt, of a young prosecutor from the vantage point of three decades. Evidence exonerating Ford was available before the trial began, but Ford and the rest of the prosecution, including police, believed they had their man. So they pursued Ford instead of the evidence, and the truth.

“My inaction contributed to the miscarriage of justice in this matter,” Stroud wrote. “Based on what we had, I was confident that the right man was being prosecuted and I was not going to commit resources to investigate what I considered to be bogus claims that we had the wrong man. My mindset was wrong and blinded me to my purpose of seeking justice, rather than obtaining a conviction of a person who I believed to be guilty. I did not hide evidence, I simply did not seriously consider that sufficient information may have been out there that could have led to a different conclusion. And that omission is on me.”

He also blames himself for not speaking up when he knew the lawyers defending Ford were not up to the task.

“In 1984, I was 33 years old. I was arrogant, judgmental, narcissistic and very full of myself. I was not as interested in justice as I was in winning. To borrow a phrase from Al Pacino in the movie ‘And Justice for All,’ ‘Winning became everything.’ After the death verdict in the Ford trial, I went out with others and celebrated with a few rounds of drinks. That's sick. I had been entrusted with the duty to seek the death of a fellow human being, a very solemn task that certainly did not warrant any ‘celebration.’ ”

Stroud goes on to issue an eloquent indictment of the death penalty itself, an arbitrary process that in the Ford case involved a prosecutor who, at age 33, “was not capable of making a decision that could have led to the killing of another human being. No one should be given the ability to impose a sentence of death in any criminal proceeding. We are simply incapable of devising a system that can fairly and impartially impose a sentence of death because we are all fallible human beings.

“The clear reality is that the death penalty is an anathema to any society that purports to call itself civilized. It is an abomination that continues to scar the fibers of this society and it will continue to do so until this barbaric penalty is outlawed. Until then, we will live in a land that condones state assisted revenge and that is not justice in any form or fashion.”

Stroud, as a former actor in this tragedy, would know.

Oh, and the compensation Louisiana is fighting? It's even worse than North Carolina's unconscionable cap of $750,000. In Louisiana, the cap is $250,000 paid out over 10 years.

Follow Scott Martelle on Twitter @smartelle.

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