Prosecutor Misconduct Gets Acquittals, But Usually Not Costs

Justice Department lawyers accused Army Lt. Col. Robert Morris of conspiring to steal military supplies, even after a nearly two-year Army probe had cleared him. Another U.S. attorney’s office had declined to prosecute. Prosecutors went ahead with the charges anyway.

The jury needed only 45 minutes to find Morris not guilty. By then, though, his career had derailed. His parents had mortgaged their home to help with $250,000 in legal bills. He had drained his own savings.

Atlanta criminal defense attorneys point out that a 1997 law requires the Justice Department to repay the legal bills of defendants who win their cases and prove that federal prosecutors committed misconduct or other wrongdoing.

A Texas billionaire stepped in to help the Morris family pay off part of the debts. Col. Morris got nothing from Washington.

The law, known as the Hyde Amendment, was intended to deter misconduct and compensate people who are harmed when federal prosecutors cross the line. USA Today recently found that the law has left innocent people like Morris with ruined careers and reputations and with heavy legal costs. And the law hasn’t stopped federal prosecutors from committing misconduct or pursuing legally questionable cases.

USA Today found 201 cases in the years since the law’s passage in which federal judges found that Justice Department prosecutors violated laws or ethics rules. But in only thirteen cases has the government paid anything toward defendants’ legal bills.

The Hyde Amendment did nothing for Morris, whose claim was dismissed by a judge who nonetheless criticized prosecutors and said they had “lost sight of the objective — justice.”

The law did nothing for Michael Zomber, an antiques dealer who spent two years in prison and paid more than $1 million in attorney fees before his fraud conviction was thrown out.

The law did not help Daniel Chapman, a lawyer who lost his job and had to sell his house to pay $275,000 in legal bills fighting a securities fraud case a judge threw out for “flagrant” prosecutorial misconduct.

The main factors the Hyde Amendment does not end up compensating wrongly prosecuted defendants:

  • Some defendants are pressured by federal prosecutors to give up their right to seek repayment in exchange for lenient plea bargains or getting their cases thrown out.
  • Many defendants don’t apply
  • Proving the prosecutorial misconduct is very difficult, practically requiring another trial.

Source: USA Today, “Not guilty, but stuck with big bills, damaged career,” September 28, 2010