For 20 years, this prosecutor had a secret job serving the judges who would decide his cases

Ralph Petty worked as an assistant district attorney in Midland County, Texas for 20 years. Like any prosecutor, he ardently defended the government. But he was not only any lawyer, because he wasn’t just a prosecutor. Every night, Petty would take off his proverbial DA hat and walk back to the courthouse as clerk for the same judges he was trying to convince to side with him during the day.

His unethical stampede involved tipping the scales in favor of the government, quietly writing notices and orders that ruled in favor of the prosecution – also known as himself – and accessing confidential documents to the defence. For two decades, Petty pulled off a secret balancing act: he was both prosecutor and de facto judge, pocketing an extra $250,000 for his dishonest services.

In more than 300 cases, defendants have been denied due process rights because of Petty’s misconduct. Among his first victims was Clinton Young, the Texas man who was set to be executed after entering death row in 2003 for a murder he claims he did not commit. The conviction was overturned in 2021 and Young was released on bail in January pending a new trial.

Yet while Petty may have stolen years from people’s lives – and, in Young’s case, nearly sent someone to die – it may be nearly impossible to hold him accountable, thanks to various doctrines of immunity that provide government agents with an almost impenetrable shield against facing victims in civil court. The safeguard afforded to prosecutors is very thick, giving them absolute immunity for functions performed in their official capacity, which means that they can knowingly accuse false testimony or introduce fabricated evidence while still being protected.

One of Petty’s victims is willing to try. In a court case Filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas yesterday, Erma Wilson alleges she was wrongfully convicted of drug possession when Petty mangled her case and overturned her due process rights. After refusing several plea deals and insisting on a trial – which is extremely rare these days – she received an eight-year suspended prison sentence. And although she hasn’t actually spent any time behind prison walls, she is still feeling the ripple effects of her 2001 conviction, unable to fulfill her childhood dream of becoming a nurse due to the laws on Texas licenses that disqualify people with certain criminal offenses. Meanwhile, the Texas Supreme Court disbarred Petty in 2021, two years after he retired.

“All I want now is to hold the entire Petty and Midland County justice system to account, so that other prosecutors think twice about violating the rights of the people,” Wilson said in the post. a statement. statement. “There is nothing that can be done to give me back the last 20 years of my life or my failed nursing career, but I can make sure similar violations don’t happen to others.”

It’s unclear if Wilson will even have the privilege of appearing before a jury to seek damages. It would continue to be elusive for years to come as his lawyers fought their way through the courts, asking a series of judges to deny Petty immunity for his dealings.

The vast majority of like-minded lawsuits are dead on arrival, thanks to the absolute protections afforded to prosecutors for labor-related malfeasance. Case in point: A federal court shielded District Attorney Samuel D’Aquilla of Jackson, Louisiana from civil suit after he sabotaged a rape case against his colleague in the justice system, then Deputy Warden of the State Penitentiary of Louisiana, brought by a woman. who alleged that the man had brutally raped her repeatedly in prison. “Ninety-nine percent of the time when you try to bring in a prosecutor as a defendant, you immediately lose immunity from prosecution,” says Alexa Gervasi, an attorney at the Institute for Justice and attorney for Wilson. “This lawsuit aims to change that.”

They may have a chance. At the core of the current framework, DAs are protected as long as the alleged wrongdoing occurred in the employment context. Petty was indeed acting as a prosecutor. But he also did a lot more – taking on the job of a lawyer. The case “is a stepping stone to lifting immunity from prosecution,” Gervasi said. “What this case will do is show why absolute immunity in every way is wrong. It creates incentives to do wrong and to violate the Constitution.” Why respect our founding charter when you know you have nothing to lose?

If they defeat prosecution immunity, Gervasi and Wilson will also have to overcome qualified immunity, the legal doctrine that allows state and local actors to infringe on your rights if the precise way they would have done so did not. not incorporated into a previous court decision. The 2020 criminal justice protests have brought the topic of qualified immunity to the fore, as it sometimes protects police officers for doing things like stealing, shooting children and destroying the property of innocent people if complainants don’t. are unable to find pre-existing precedent with very similar factual circumstances. But prosecutors can also enjoy qualified immunity for actions taken outside their official jurisdiction when they absolute immunity no longer applies.

It’s an apt microcosm for how difficult it is for victims to seek meaningful remedy when their constitutional rights are violated by the most powerful people in society. “When you do something wrong, there have to be consequences,” says Gervasi. “Otherwise, the rules mean nothing.”

About Jessica J. Bass

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