American prosecutors hold enormous amounts of authority and the courts have deferred to them at every step. Even when there is prosecutorial misconduct or when prosecutors bring cases to trial while knowing they have no evidence, they almost never are punished. Only the innocent, who often have to spend themselves into financial oblivion to defend themselves, are made to pay a price.
Last week, a West Virginia jury acquitted former teacher Autumn Rae Faulkner of having sex three times with a 15-year-old student. What is remarkable is the jury was out only for an hour before returning the acquittal, and anyone who has served on a jury knows that when someone is acquitted that quickly, jurors knew almost from the start that the prosecution had a false case.
In a blog post elsewhere, I bring up the question of what should happen to prosecutors who do this sort of thing? A judge earlier in the case had dismissed the original charges because prosecutors had illegally withheld exculpatory evidence, and for spite, the prosecution got a second set of indictments. Why? As far as I can tell, Steven Jory, the special prosecutor hired by the State of West Virginia to oversee the case, did it because he could do it. After all, Jory did not have to spend a dime of his own money while Faulkner and her family had to spend nearly all they had.
Because the U.S. Supreme Court has given prosecutors absolute immunity from lawsuits from private citizens, it is up to government authorities to discipline their own, and the government’s record in that department is abysmal. Defenders of the high court’s rulings say that prosecutors must be free to perform their jobs, and they should be free to make honest errors of judgment, even if the results are tragic.
Such a viewpoint is far to rosy for me. As Lord Acton famously wrote, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” In a just system, Faulkner should be free to sue Jory and his staff into oblivion, especially since there will be no disciplinary action from state officials. Jory’s recklessness and abuse of power in a case in which he not only had zero credible evidence, but also suborned perjury should have a better outcome than his going to the office the next day to see who next to prosecute.
In the meantime, Faulkner must pick up the pieces. She was accused of being a sexual predator, had her mug shot plastered throughout the media and the Internet, lost her teaching job, and was the subject of vile abuse from authorities, along with people who immediately assumed she was guilty. Even though the prosecution’s case was weak from the beginning, nonetheless she is the one who pays the price while the real lawbreakers are free to abuse both the law and innocent people again and again. If this is the best that the American system of “justice” can do, then it is a system that is not worth supporting and certainly not worth saving.
Update: The original prosecutor in the case, Richard T. Busch, was found to have engaged in misconduct that apparently was so bad that even West Virginia authorities no longer could cover for him. This website referred to Busch as a “congentital liar,” and The Record, West Virginia’s legal journal, reported last June that the “Lawyer Disciplinary Board, the prosecutorial arm of the state Supreme Court, filed a two-count statement of charges Feb. 13 against Richard T. Busch.”
The article is worth reading if only to see just how dishonest Busch really is. Randolph Circuit Judge Jaymie Godwin Wilfong finally acted against him after he lied to her in open court in the Faulkner case and in another one.
What is shocking to me, after reading this, is that the State of West Virginia continued to pursue criminal charges against Faulkner even though the state had no evidence other than the boy’s shifting claims of sex. Prosecutors should only bring charges when they themselves are absolutely convinced of the defendant’s guilt and the evidence is clear. Instead, West Virginia authorities continued to push the charges against Faulkner and ultimately ran into a brick wall, which jurors easily exposed.
Busch at the very least deserves to be disbarred and probably should be charged criminally. However, given the state of cronyism and corruption that infects West Virginia, I will be surprised if any real discipline is meted out to Busch at all.
– William Anderson