Blue Lies: Police in Court

Revolutionary Worker #992, January 31, 1999

For Rolando Cruz, the long nightmare finally came to an end in 1995. He walked out of prison after spending 10 years on Illinois death row for the murder of a 10-year-old girl in DuPage County near Chicago. After a protracted struggle in the courts and with the support of many on the outside, Cruz was finally free. But the system had robbed him of more than 10 years of his life.

Cruz and another man, Alejandro Hernandez, were convicted on "evidence" manufactured by cops and prosecutors. The prosecutor's case rested on lies told in court by police officers about incriminating statements supposedly made by the defendants. The prosecutors misrepresented what little physical evidence they had and suppressed information pointing to the innocence of the defendants.

Four police officers and three former DuPage prosecutors are now on trial on felony charges of conspiring to frame Rolando Cruz. If the prosecutors are convicted, it would be the first felony convictions of prosecutors in the United States for misconduct in a criminal case.

But this statistic does NOT mean that lying, suppression and manufacturing of evidence, witness tampering and other misconduct by cops and prosecutors is rare. On the contrary, such activity goes on every day, all over the country. It is standard operating procedure for law enforcement officials in the U.S.

The Chicago Tribune recently reported that since 1963, "at least 381 defendants nationally have had a homicide conviction thrown out because prosecutors concealed evidence suggesting innocence or presented evidence they knew to be false." Of these 381, 57 were death penalty cases.

The Tribune explains that the 381 cases "account for only a fraction of how often prosecutors commit such deception--which is by design hidden and can take extraordinary efforts to uncover. No one knows how often prosecutors engage in such duplicity but aren't caught." And if all cases are considered, not just homicide cases, the amount of prosecutorial abuse becomes even larger.

An investigation by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette "found hundreds of cases in which federal agents and prosecutors violated rules and laws to make cases." According to the Post-Gazette, "Some incidents went beyond treading across the line of ethical or legal guidelines. These cases involved actions where the abuse of power was cynically calculated to inflict harm well beyond the limits of the law."

Testifying at the House impeachment hearings in December, attorney Alan M. Dershowitz pointed out: "Numerous commission reports have found rampant abuses in police departments throughout the country. All objective reports point to a pervasive problem of police lying, and tolerance of lying by prosecutors and judges..."

There is a lot of talk these days in this country about perjury under oath. There is an epidemic of perjury in the courts--rampant lying by cops, prosecutors and other "officers of the law."

Manipulation of Evidence

One of the most common methods of deception used by cops and prosecutors is to make up evidence unfavorable to defendants or hide evidence that points to innocence. According to the Chicago Tribune, "Prosecutors have concealed evidence that discredited their star witnesses, pointed to other suspects or supported a defendant's claim of self-defense. They have suppressed evidence that a murder occurred when the defendants had alibis, or that it occurred not in a defendant's home, as alleged, but in someone else's cornfield far away. In one case prosecutors depicted red paint as blood. In another they portrayed hog blood as human."

Prosecutors are required by law to hand over evidence and names of witnesses favorable to a defendant's case when the defense files discovery motions. But as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported, prosecutors often lie and keep such evidence and witnesses hidden from the defense attorneys: "[A] review of 1,500 allegations of prosecutorial misconduct over the past 10 years found hundreds of examples of discovery violations in which prosecutors intentionally concealed evidence that might have helped prove a defendant innocent or a witness against him suspect.... Prosecutors who violated discovery rules were seldom punished. Many violated discovery rules over and over again."

In one case cited by the Chicago Tribune, two Black men--Sammy Thomas and his brother Willie Gene--were convicted of murder in upstate New York. The victim's brother had told police that the killers were white. However, the police and prosecutors conspired to keep this crucial information from coming out in the original trial. The truth only came out at Willie Gene's retrial in 1980. Gene was acquitted, and the charges were then dropped against his brother. The prosecutor in the case, Peter Corning, was never punished for his conduct in the trial--on the contrary, he later became a judge.

Another case mentioned by the Chicago Tribune is that of Orville Stifel, convicted in Ohio of murdering his ex-girlfriend's fiancé with a letter bomb. In prison, Stifel used the Freedom of Information Act to get his hands on 1,500 pages of documents that the prosecution never disclosed to the defense--including clear evidence implicating the victim's father. After 12 years in prison, Stifel was able to win a reversal of his conviction in 1984.

Cops on the Stand

Cops are often key witnesses for the prosecutors in the courtroom. And cops and prosecutors work together to lie and to frame up defendants.

Eric Sterling of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation said, "In New York City police officers call it `testilying.' In Los Angeles, they call it `the liars club.' Everybody knows that lying takes place. The prosecutors don't feel bad about it. This is simply part of the system."

In his House testimony, Alan Dershowitz recalled a case in which he represented a lawyer accused of corruption. The major witness against his client was a cop who admitted that he himself had committed three crimes and denied that he had committed any others. But, said Dershowitz, "It was subsequently learned that he had, in fact, committed hundreds of additional crimes, including some he specifically denied under oath." The cop was never prosecuted for perjury "because a young Assistant U.S. Attorney named Rudolph Giuliani led a campaign against prosecuting this admitted perjurer." This cop later said, "Cops are almost taught how to commit perjury when they are in the Police Academy."

Dershowitz pointed out that those in the highest ranks of law enforcement are well aware of this epidemic of police perjury: "For example, William F. Bratton, who has headed the police departments of New York City and Boston, has confirmed that `testilying' is a `real problem that needs to be addressed'...Many judges who listen to or review police testimony on a regular basis privately agree with Judge Alex Kozinski of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, who publicly stated: `It is an open secret that perjury is widespread among law enforcement officers'... As Judge Irving Younger explained, `Every lawyer who practices in the criminal courts knows that police perjury is commonplace."'

Snitches and False Testimony

When prosecutors and cops are not lying themselves, they often coerce and/or coach informers to give false testimony. This practice was examined in detail in "Snitches," a recent program in the Frontline series on public TV.

The government's "war on drugs" has led to a major increase in the use of informants. One reason is that the prosecution can use the threat of long mandatory prison sentences for even minor drug offenses to pressure people into testifying against others--even if they have to make up the testimony.

Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, spoke about this in "Snitches": "A first-time drug offender will get a 10-year mandatory minimum without chance of parole in the federal system. That's a long damn time. And there's no out. You're looking at an office that has an over 90 percent conviction rate. And if you're convicted, you spend 10 years, and there's no more parole in the federal system.

"Now, you tell that to a young kid at 18, and it concentrates the mind. And he asks his lawyer, `What can I do to get out of this?' and you say, `Well, you have to turn someone in. You've got to cop a plea. You've got to give them something they want.' And they do. And if they don't know anything, they make it up. And that's the way it works.

"And it's not good. It's not good for any of us. But it's the way that the system more and more seems to operate. We're beginning to become a society of informants."

By the early 1990s, the government was paying more than $100 million a year to snitches for testifying for the prosecution. Many informers get paid off by having their sentences reduced. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the eagerness of prosecutors to use testimony from snitches has spurred a growing commerce in federal prisons--the selling and buying of information that could be used by snitches to concoct testimony for prosecutors. The Post-Gazette noted, "Often, these inmates testify against people they've never met. They corroborate crimes they've never witnessed. Prosecutors win cases. Convicts win early freedom. The accused loses. Federal agents and prosecutors have been accused of helping move the scheme along by providing convicts some of the information."

Even before the intensification of the "war on drugs," the use of false testimony by snitches has long been part of how cops and prosecutors operate. In the notorious Ford Heights 4 case, four Black men from a poor Black suburb of Detroit--Kenny Adams, Verneal Jimerson, Willie Rainge and Dennis Williams--were convicted in the 1978 rape and murder of a white couple. Two of the men were sentenced to death. After almost 20 years in prison, the four were finally cleared of the crime and released.

The Chicago Tribune pointed out, "From the initial gathering of evidence to the final verdict of guilty, the case against Williams and three of his friends was always shaky. In the lawsuits they filed after being exonerated, they allege that the sheriff's police were racists who made hasty arrests, then cooked up incriminating evidence."

Key to the prosecution's case were three witnesses who implicated the four men. But as the Tribune noted, "Court rulings, sworn affidavits and interviews with key participants indicate that prosecutors concealed that witnesses had received a host of undisclosed benefits for testifying." The benefits included "get-out-of-jail-free cards" for two witnesses, who later admitted they had lied on the stand. The third witness got a new job through the help of prosecutors--but even the police admitted in recent years that his testimony was not believable.

Dennis Williams was one of 28 former death row prisoners who attended the National Conference on Wrongful Convictions and the Death Penalty in Chicago last November. When he was introduced on the stage, he told the audience, "My name is Dennis Williams. Had the state of Illinois gotten its way, I'd be dead today."

The use of false testimony from witnesses was key in the 1982 political trial of Mumia Abu-Jamal. Key prosecution witnesses testified against Mumia after they were threatened by the police.

Protected by the System

The Mollen Commission in New York City reported that commanding officers "not only tolerated, but encouraged" lying by cops. One low-level cop, testifying in front of the Commission, described how his supervisor coached him to make up false cover stories in order to help make drug arrests.

Prosecutors who lie and commit other abuses in the courtroom rarely have their convictions reversed, even if they carry out blatant misconduct. The Chicago Tribune pointed out, "Even when prosecutors are caught hiding evidence, courts will reverse a conviction only if the evidence was so strong that its disclosure would have created a `reasonable probability' of a different verdict. Courts use a similar threshold in cases where prosecutors presented evidence they knew to be false. The result is that courts frequently uphold a conviction even when prosecutors suppress evidence or allow witnesses to lie, ruling that the prosecutor's actions, while reprehensible, probably did not change the trial's outcome."

The Effective Death Penalty Act signed into law by President Clinton makes it even harder for prisoners on death row to appeal their cases to higher courts.

And prosecutors cannot be sued by victims on wrongful convictions. In 1976 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prosecutors have immunity from such lawsuits.

According to research by the Chicago Tribune, not a single prosecutor in any kind of criminal case has received any official sanction for falsifying evidence or for other misconduct. And the Tribune found only two cases where prosecutors were convicted of criminal charges for such misconduct--both were misdemeanors with $500 fines.

In fact, many of the prosecutors involved in such misconduct went on to be promoted to DAs and other higher positions within the law enforcement system.


Lying by cops and prosecutors is not just a matter of a few "rogue" law enforcement officers. It is widespread--and it is condoned and even actively promoted from the highest levels. It is an essential part of how the whole machinery of injustice operates under this system.


"Trial and Error", Chicago Tribune, Jan. 10-14, 1999

"Win at All Costs", Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Nov. 22-Dec. 13, 1998

Testimony of Alan Dershowitz at the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, Dec. 1, 1998

"Snitch," Frontline series, Jan. 12, 1999. Written, produced and directed by Ofra Bikel

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