Wednesday, August 13, 2014


"Absolute immunity": The deadliest weapon in the prosecutor’s arsenal

"Prosecutors are rewarded for winning at all costs, they have no incentive to seek the truth rather than a conviction, and they are entirely unaccountable when they pervert justice in pursuit of victory," observes Idaho resident John T. Bujak. "People shouldn't believe that their innocence provides any protection. The question isn't whether you have done anything wrong, but whether the criminal justice system is going to target you – and once you're in that system, you face prohibitive odds of emerging from it without being hurt."

This familiar complaint was voiced by an apparently unlikely plaintiff: From January 2009 until October 2010, Bujak was the elected District Attorney for Canyon County, the second-largest in Idaho.

Bujak has spent a considerable portion of the past four years in court on the other end of the government's prisoner-manufacturing apparatus, acting as his own defense counsel in multiple trials involving charges of embezzlement and bankruptcy fraud. He is five-for-five as his own defense attorney, a record that testifies of either his considerable skill as an advocate, the poverty of the charges against him, the depth of the enmity he has inspired within the Canyon County justice system, or perhaps all three.

"My experiences illustrate the reality of prosecutorial over-reach, and the ease with which people can find themselves in court facing prison time and financial ruin over charges that have no merit," Bujak told me during a quiet meeting in a Nampa coffee shop in the company of his wife, Crystalee. "That's why about ninety percent of the people who face federal charges accept a deal in exchange for foregoing their right to a trial. They're terrified, which is understandable, and if they wind up with a public defender they'll be fed into a plea-bargaining machine. And prosecutors know that the key to career advancement is to win convictions. This is especially true of elected prosecutors, such as district attorneys. Early in my career, one of my mentors told me that no DA ever lost a re-election campaign for being too tough on crime – and the public assumes that a high conviction rate offers the best measure of a DA's toughness."

Bujak's outspoken criticism of his former profession might be seen by some as a product of his own recent travails. There is reason to believe that his ouster by what he calls –with little originality, but considerable vehemence – the "Good Old Boy Network" was prompted by some principled stands he took in pursuit of official accountability.

Alone among Idaho's 44 district attorneys, Bujak endorsed the "Uniform Post-Conviction Procedure Act," which was created with input from the Innocence Project. That measure states that for any conviction in which identity was the key question, and "fingerprint or forensic DNA test results demonstrate, in light of all admissible evidence, that the petitioner is not the person who committed the offense, the court shall order the appropriate relief," which can be overturning the conviction and ordering a new trial.

"When that bill was introduced in the Legislature, the Idaho Prosecuting Attorneys Association met and determined that they would not support it," Bujak recounted to me. That’s a group that includes not only the District Attorneys, but hundreds of deputy prosecutors and assistant prosecutors state-wide. "I was the only member of the IPAA who endorsed the bill, because I believe that truth shouldn't have an expiration date," Bujak recalled.

Bujak’s collaboration with the Innocence Project began shortly after he entered office in 2009. In defiance of the tribal impulses of the prosecutorial class, Bujak agreed to review the conviction of Sarah Pearce, who spent 11 years in prison for her supposed role in the horrific gang-beating and attempted murder of Linda LeBrane.

The case was cleared by the Canyon County DA's office years before Bujak's election, but in reviewing the files he became convinced that "an injustice had been done." Significantly, one of his first personnel decisions as Canyon County DA was to ask for the resignation of Deputy DA Virginia Bond, who had prosecuted the case. Whatever else can be said about Bujak’s short-lived career as Canyon County DA, it is indisputable that his decision to reopen that case made him a lot of enemies very quickly.

Linda LeBrane, a middle-aged woman from Washington, was driving east on I-84 near Caldwell in June 2000 when she was forced off the road by a vehicle carrying three men and a young woman. The strangers dragged LeBrane from her car and demanded that she give them drugs and money. The victim eagerly surrendered all the money in her possession – a total of forty dollars and a credit card – while pleading for her life.

The assailants beat and stabbed LeBrane; one of them struck her in the head with a baseball bat. They left – but came back in a few minutes to set her car on fire. This actually proved to be her salvation: The flames attracted the attention of two young men who found LeBrane dying on the ground. She survived the attack, but was psychologically shattered by the experience.

Two years later, three suspects were arrested, one of whom, Kenneth Wurdeman, confessed to his role in the hideous crime. Investigators still hadn't found the woman who participated in the assault, who was described as a short, petite, very pretty young Hispanic woman who spoke both English and Spanish. Detective Wayne Christie, an investigator with the Canyon County Sheriff's Office, interrogated a young woman named Erica Curiel, who fit the description perfectly. She was released after reportedly passing a polygraph examination. Christie protested that decision, and was quickly given what could be considered a punitive transfer to jail duty.

For reasons that have never been adequately explained, the investigation focused on a 17-year-old girl named Sarah Pearce, who was in a Job Corps program following a narcotics conviction. A jailhouse informant claimed that Pearce "ran with" one of the suspects, and that dubious assertion was the only thing connecting her to the crime.

Unlike the suspect described by LeBrane, Pearce was a Tomboyish, red-haired, freckle-faced Anglo who spoke no Spanish and stood 5'6" tall – more than a half-foot taller than the female attacker. Importantly, Pearce was taller than LeBrane, who said that the female "ringleader" was shorter than herself.

The descriptions offered by LeBrane and eyewitnesses who had seen the attackers either before or after the assault were an uncanny match for the three male suspects who were eventually tracked down. However, Pearce was a very poor fit with the description provided for the female. In two suspect lineups, LeBrane identified women other than Pearce as the female assailant. The other witnesses were told by the deputy conducting the line-up that one of the subjects was a "person of interest." That statement effectively discredited the identification, since it destroyed the double-blind nature of the exercise.

One eyewitness also recalled that before being shown the subjects, a photo of Sarah Pearce was shown on a video screen – a tactic seemingly calculated to produce a sense of recognition and, therefore, a false identification. After Pearce was arrested and placed in a lineup. Detective Robert Miles, who took over from Wayne Christie as the lead investigator, told LeBrane to choose the subject who "most closely resembled" the female perpetrator – which means that her selection of Sarah Pearce was essentially useless.

During Pearce's trial in 2003, confessed perpetrator Kenneth Wurdeman insisted that she was not the woman who had participated in the crime. The trial judge refused to permit an expert witness for the defense, BSU psychology professor Dr. Charles Honts, to offer a critical examination of the methods used by the Canyon County Sheriff's Office in conducting the suspect lineups. Despite the fact that Pearce was too tall, of the wrong ethnicity, spoke no Spanish, and had an alibi, she was convicted of six felonies – including attempted murder – and sentenced to a term of 15 years to life in prison.

Over the next five years, Pearce filed several appeals, all of which were rejected. Her case would have remained buried if it hadn’t been resurrected by Ginny Hatch, a BSU graduate student volunteering with the Innocence Project.

With the exception of LeBrane herself, every eyewitness contacted by Innocence Project investigators recanted his testimony identifying Pearce as the female perpetrator. Wayne Christie, who has since retired from the Canyon County Sheriff’s Office, discovered an official report stating that Curiel had actually failed the polygraph examination – a fact that was not admissible as evidence against her, but would have been useful to the defense. Prosecutor Virginia Bond withheld that knowledge from Pearce’s defense counsel, most likely because it would have been used to raise questions about the Sheriff’s curious eagerness to ignore a much better suspect in the case.

More here




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