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Utah case shows difficulty in holding unethical prosecutors accountable

Prosecutors have an enormous amount of power, and are very rarely held accountable when that power is abused.

Prosecutors have an enormous amount of power, and are very rarely held accountable when that power is abused.

Take this recent case out of Utah. Prosecutors listened in on conversations former Provo Councilman Steve Turley had with his attorney after he’d been arrested and charged with 10 counts of fraud in real estate deals, violating attorney client privilege.

According to the Salt Lake Tribune, a copy was made of the feed, but was later destroyed.

A judge later ruled that Turley’s rights had been violated, but found that no harm had been done. All the charges against him were later either dismissed or dropped.

“This has been a lot of hell,” Turley said in 2015 when the charges were dropped. “And yet we’re here today, proud to have the judge confirm what we’ve always known, that there was no criminal activity on my part.”

But Turley also said the criminal charges had ruined his life, and he doubted the damage could be repaired.

“It has devastated our family, and it’s a shame we had to go through that — that some overzealous prosecutors had the ability to do that to an innocent family’s life,” Turley said. “I don’t know how something like this can be made right.”

But County Attorney Jeff Buhman and all of his subordinates that were involved in the case have not been punished, or suffered any negative repercussions to their careers. And that’s not unusual.

“There is no disincentive for these guys to ever play by the rules,” Turley said.

Turley has filed a lawsuit, but that suit will have to overcome the immunity prosecutors normally enjoy as a part of doing their jobs. An argument could be made that what prosecutors did in this case was so egregious that they are not immune, similar to what happened in the Duke rape case. The challenge is that the judge originally ruling that no harm was done.

But the problem goes beyond Turley. State bar associations have been noticeably reluctant to go after prosecutors, and the public seems to prefer believing that prosecutors are acting in an ethical way, even though many defense attorneys will tell you that prosecutors are happy “forgetting” to give them important discovery and convictions are often reversed when prosecutors make inflammatory and prejudicial statements to jurors.

The Center for Prosecutor Integrity has found that 43 percent of wrongful convictions were attributable to misconduct. That includes failing to turn over Brady material required by law and introducing evidence into trials that should have been ruled inadmissible.

But the public may be changing its view. Many people have a skeptical view of the criminal justice system, and cases like Turley’s will make even conservative law and order people wonder if something is rotten with the countries prosecutors.

It’s up to the ethical prosecutors to fight back. We’ll see in the next few years if anything changes.