Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Louisiana's Chief Persecutor

Louisiana's Attorney General, Charles Foti, needs to move on. The grand jury found no probable cause to pursue murder charges against a doctor accused of killing her patients during Hurricane Katrina. Probable cause is a very low standard. To borrow from the old adage, the grand jury essentially told the prosecutors that their case fell at least a slice of bread short of a ham sandwich.

Undeterred, Mr. Foti wants to make his case to the public. He has released reports from supposed medical experts hired by his office that suggest that the deaths should be ruled homicides. This isn't about prosecution; it's persecution. Given that State prosecutors have exclusive control over what evidence is presented to the grand jury, one has to wonder (because grand jury proceedings are secret) whether (a) the grand jury saw these reports and remained unmoved or (b) the State, for whatever reasons, simply chose not to present the evidence to the jury. Either way, the grand jury has spoken, and that should put the matter to rest. To be sure, it is in theory possible for the State to simply present its case again to another grand jury. (The Constitution's Double Jeopardy prohibition does not apply to grand jury proceedings.) But that would be highly unusual. (In the federal system, line prosecutors must get approval from the Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division to take s second bite at the grand jury apple.)

Mr. Foti is essentially thumbing his nose at the very criminal justice system he's supposed to support. The grand jury serves as a bulwark against prosecutorial overreaching. It ensures that the State has at least probable cause (i.e., it's more likely than not that a crime has been committed) before pursuing a felony prosecution. Mr. Foti apparently finds the grand jury inconvenient, or at least irrelevant, when it conflicts with his personal assessment of the merits of a case. I only wish the State showed such fervor when it pursues other serious crimes -- like the countless street murders. Alas, Louisiana is mired in moral questions over doctors' treatment of terminally ill patients rather than focusing on the literally black and white issues of street thuggery.

I wonder how Mr. Foti has acquired such god-like certainty in this particular case. He is not a doctor. The Coroner found the evidence inconclusive. Loads of doctors have weighed in with varying opinions on the matter. At bottom, however, none of them were there (except, of course, the accused Dr. Pou) when the events in question transpired. With all due respect, I'm not even sure what Mr. Foti's qualifications are as a lawyer. As far as I can tell, he served as the Parish Sheriff for three decades and hardly ever practiced law before being elected AG. That's not to say he's unqualified. (You can judge his qualifications and accomplishments for yourself.) It's merely an observation that he doesn't seem to be in the best position to judge. Indeed, our justice system leaves that to the grand jury. Unless, of course, Mr. Foti brings back the Inquisition.

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