A federal judge described the prosecutorial misconduct in Jeffrey Wogenstahl’s case as “wholly improper” and “plain and plentiful”.* Despite this, and despite additional recent evidence which supports Jeff’s claim of innocence, he was given an execution date (stayed two months ago).
A recent report from the Fair Punishment Project notes that just five prosecutors are responsible for “roughly 15% of the current death row population nationwide, or approximately one out of every seven individuals on death row.” Commenting on the report, The New York Times concludes:
“the death penalty has been, and continues to be, a personality-driven system with very few safeguards against misconduct and frequent abuse of power, a fact that seriously undermines its legitimacy.”
Despite the extensive misconduct in his case, Jeff’s prosecutor, Joe Deters, is not among the thirteen “deadly” prosecutors mentioned in the Fair Punishment Project’s report. Nor even is Jim Williams, the Louisiana prosecutor who secured wrongful death sentences for John Thompson and others:
“Jim Williams was so zealous in his pursuit of the death penalty that he even posed for a picture with the mini-electric chair on his desk on which he had taped the faces of the men that he had wrongfully sent to death row. The toy electric chair was his trophy for his kills. He posed with it like white men used to pose around the body of a Black man they had lynched.”
After an investigation into Williams and others was halted just before the point of indictment, Thompson made his own attempt to hold the prosecutor accountable. He sued the prosecutor’s office, was awarded $14 million by a jury in Louisiana, but then lost his entitlement to it: the US Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that prosecutors cannot be held liable for their misconduct, even if they deliberately cheat to convict innocent people.
As long as such protection is given to prosecutors who commit what Thomson rightly calls “premeditated attempted murder”, there will be more victims like Jeffrey Wogenstahl and John Thompson. Over-generous prosecutor protection leads to devastated lives and quite possibly even murder. It is time to address what Thompson calls this “totally preventable crime”.