With their backs against the wall, prosecutors bring out their dirtiest tricks
December 7, 1998
Federal prosecutors frequently rely on promises of leniency when they use criminals to snare other criminals, but the governmentís word isnít necessarily its bond.
In 1990, Mary Ann Rounsavall pleaded guilty to helping her brother deal drugs and was sentenced to five years in prison. Then in 1994, as she awaited her release from prison, prosecutors brought new charges against her in connection with the same drug ring that the government said her brother James was still operating.
She and her brother were charged with bringing millions of dollars worth of drugs from Southern California to Nebraska and laundering the proceeds of the drug sales. She was even accused of selling drugs over the telephone while she was locked up.
But the governmentís case was thin.
A judge declared two mistrials based on prejudicial testimony by government witnesses. So prosecutors pressed Mary Ann Rounsavall to snitch on her brother in exchange for a lenient sentence for herself.
Prosecutors told her they might go after other members of her family unless she testified.
She still refused.
Then they arranged for her to see her brother, who had been taken from the prison where they both were being held and placed in a hospital intensive care unit, suffering from viral pneumonia and a recurrence of his rheumatoid arthritis. They told her he did not have long to live, and his grave condition at the hospital gave credence to their claims.
Mary Ann Rounsavall talked to her mother, Gladys Rounsavall. She told Mary Ann it would be best to testify against James. If he was dying, then Gladys would at least know her daughter wouldnít risk a long prison term.
So Mary Ann Rounsavall testified. Her statements sent James Rounsavall to prison for life. In return, Mary Ann Rounsavall had been promised about eight years.
But the prosecutors in her case reneged on their pledge. They made no request that her sentence be reduced based on her cooperation, and the judge had no choice under federal mandatory sentencing guidelines but to give her a 20-year sentence based on her own confession.
U.S. District Judge Richard Kopf, a hard-liner in drug cases, denounced the prosecutor for failing to live up to his promise. He called the action "horribly wrong."
Mary Ann Rounsavall also learned that her brother was healthy ó he isnít dying at all. She was tricked.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazetteís two-year investigation found hundreds of cases in which federal agents and prosecutors violated rules and laws to make cases.
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.
Marvin Miller, ethics committee chairman for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, admits he is a harsh critic of federal prosecutors and their actions.He said there is no question prosecutors over the past decade have increasingly subscribed to an anything-goes mentality, often pushing the limits of the law to the point that their conduct becomes unethical.
"These guys are unconcerned about misconduct," he said.
Thomas Dillard, a former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Florida and currently a criminal defense lawyer in Knoxville, Tenn., said prosecutors have free rein in such matters because the power judges once wielded to mitigate their conduct has been taken away.
"They donít have any authority in the charging, they have no authority in the sentencing," Dillard said. They have really no way of checks and balances like there used to be.
"Weíve slowly conceded any oversight of federal prosecutions. There is nobody who is in charge that has any oversight. Itís been slow in coming and gradual in its appearance, but by golly, itís here now."
Arnold I. Burns, deputy attorney general under President Reagan, said the problem is not with the majority of federal prosecutors, but with an overzealous fringe element.
"Every so often, you wind up with [a federal prosecutor] who is some sort of a crazy zealot, no background, no experience, no frame of reference, uncontrolled, unfettered, very dangerous, particularly with the sentencing guidelines," he said. "With them, the prosecutor has more and more power. In fact, he has all the power."