WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court said Monday it would take up a Los Angeles case to decide whether a chief prosecutor can be held liable for a man's wrongful conviction of murder.
The case of Van de Kamp vs. Goldstein will test the reach of the long-standing legal rule that prosecutors are immune from being sued, even when defendants are shown to be innocent.
Prosecutors, like judges, must be free to do their jobs without fear of being sued later, the high court said in 1976.
This rule of "absolute immunity" applies whenever a prosecutor "acts within the scope of his prosecutorial duties," the justices said then.
But it is not clear whether this immunity rule protects supervising prosecutors against suits over alleged management failures.
Thomas L. Goldstein, a Marine Corps veteran from Long Beach who spent 24 years in prison before his murder conviction was overturned in 2004, is not asking the Supreme Court to throw out the legal shield for prosecutors. Instead, he argues that it should be limited to prosecutors who appear in court, not to supervisors who set policies for the county.
After his release, Goldstein sued John Van de Kamp, who was the Los Angeles County district attorney from 1975 to 1983. He alleged that Van de Kamp and his top deputy allowed prosecutors throughout the county to make use of jailhouse informants, many of whom were untrustworthy.
Moreover, the county had no system for sharing information on whether informants had been used before and had been given promises in exchange for their testimony.
"The left hand didn't know what the right hand was doing," said Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at Loyola Law School who has studied the use of informants. "The culture was that the identity of snitches must be kept secret."
In Goldstein's case, Edward F. Fink, a repeat criminal, was put on the witness stand to testify that Goldstein, while in a holding cell, had confessed to shooting his neighbor. Goldstein maintained his innocence, and years later, it was revealed that the informant lied when he denied receiving favors from county officials in exchange for his testimony.
Goldstein said his suit, if successful, "would put every prosecutor's office on notice they need to establish an information management system for informants. And that will result in fewer wrongful convictions."
Lawyers for Van de Kamp said the suit should be thrown out on the grounds of prosecutorial immunity. But U.S. District Judge A. Howard Matz in Los Angeles and the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco refused. They said prosecutors could be sued for managerial failures that result in a wrongful conviction.
"We conclude that Goldstein's allegations are administrative and not prosecutorial in function. (They) bear a close connection to how the district attorney's office was managed, not to whether or how to prosecute a particular case," said U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson of San Francisco, who served on the three-judge panel. He was joined by Judges Stephen Reinhardt of Los Angeles and Robert Beezer of Seattle.
In their appeal to the Supreme Court, lawyers for Van de Kamp and Los Angeles County said the 9th Circuit's decision, if allowed to stand, would "open the floodgates" to suits against top prosecutors. They said plaintiffs could always allege that a managerial lapse led to a faulty prosecution.
The California District Attorneys Assn. and the National District Attorneys Assn. also urged the court to take up the case.
By coincidence, the Supreme Court's 1976 ruling on prosecutorial immunity also arose from a murder case in Los Angeles.
Paul K. Imbler was charged with robbing and killing the owner of a Los Angeles market in 1961, although he had a strong alibi. His execution was scheduled for September of 1962 when the prosecutor in his case, Richard Pachtman, wrote to Gov. Pat Brown saying new evidence cast doubt on Imbler's guilt.
The execution was put on hold, and after several years of hearings, Imbler's conviction was overturned and he was freed. In 1972, Imbler filed a civil suit that named Deputy Dist. Atty. Pachtman and sought $2.7 million in damages for wrongful conviction.
The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Imbler vs. Pachtman that "a prosecutor enjoys absolute immunity" from lawsuits, and its opinion said this rule extended back centuries into English law.
Allowing lawsuits "would pose a substantial danger of liability even to the honest prosecutor," said Justice Lewis F. Powell. And they "would require a virtual retrial of the criminal offense" before a civil jury.
In a concluding note, the court said it would take future cases "to delineate the boundaries of our ruling."
In Monday's order, the justices said they would hear the case of Van de Kamp vs. Goldstein to decide the limits of the "absolute immunity" rule set in Imbler vs. Pachtman. Oral arguments will be heard in the fall.
Also on Monday, the court refused to hear an appeal contending that it was cruel and unusual punishment for South Carolina to send a 12-year-old to prison for 30 years for the murders of his grandparents. The boy, Christopher Pittman, was said to be the only person serving such a long prison term for a crime at such a young age.
The justices have been especially wary of second-guessing prison sentences under the "cruel and unusual punishment" clause of the 8th Amendment.