A bizarre twist in the case of Philadelphia Msgr. William Lynn raises a troubling specter of wrongful conviction and trophy justice for some accused priests.
It’s NOT always sunny in Philadelphia. The story of the imprisonment of Monsignor William Lynn darkens a gathering cloud of injustice over a city called America’s Cradle of Liberty. It’s a story of “trophy justice,” an ominous term for anyone concerned with due process and freedom from tyranny.
Trophy justice skirts the fine line between prosecution and persecution. It’s the sort of “justice” that can evolve when a defendant’s prosecution doesn’t just right a perceived wrong, but also helps enhance a prosecutor’s career, or public profile, or ego. The term describes what the now disgraced and disbarred rogue prosecutor, Mike Nifong tried to inflict upon three young college students as I wrote in “Sex, Lies, and Videotape: Lessons from a Duke University Sex Scandal.”
The lesson was lost on Philadelphia. The conviction and imprisonment of Monsignor William Lynn on a single count of child endangerment may well be a case of trophy justice. It remains a gross debasement of due process, a story I first wrote of in “Why Are So Many Catholics So Angry with So Many Priests?” Here’s a portion of that post:
“There was a great deal wrong with that prosecution which bordered on persecution. Msgr. Lynn was not convicted of that charge because he is guilty. There was no evidence that he ever set out to endanger anyone. He was convicted because he is a priest . . . [The] news media convicted him before he ever set foot in a courtroom. The trial itself was just pro forma.
“One Philadelphia defense attorney who reads These Stone Walls described this trial as ‘justice with an agenda.’ She wrote that few in Philadelphia are now very proud of this ‘District Attorney with an ax to grind, and a judge who appeared to work for the prosecution.’ When law is reduced to a lynch mob in this arena of decades-old child abuse claims, the jury is in before the trial even starts.
“Those who would tritely say that Monsignor Lynn had his day in court and justice prevailed have no first hand knowledge of the prolific injustices that have permeated our justice system.”
For too many Americans, perceptions of the justice system are built not from experience or observation, but from popular television shows like “Law and Order” which rarely portray the reality of false accusations and wrongful convictions. On TV, police and prosecutors agonize in the nation’s courtrooms to always do the right thing, but shows like “Law and Order” fail to expose the danger of trophy justice, and the growing prevalence of plea bargains to resolve cases without justly determining guilt or innocence. On “Law and Order,” virtually every case ends with a trial.
The Wall Street Journal recently published a riveting front page account of modern criminal justice in a detailed article by Gary Fields and John R. Enshwiller entitled “Federal Guilty Pleas Soar As Bargains Trump Trials” (WSJ, Sept. 24, 2012). The article revealed that 97% of federal criminal convictions last year were a result of plea deals and not trials. According to the article:
“This relentless growth in plea bargaining has sparked a backlash among lawyers, legal scholars and judges – evidenced by recent federal court decisions including two from the Supreme Court. Weighing on many critics is the possibility . . . that the innocent could feel pressured into pleading guilty.”
A related article concluded, “Academic Study Shows Innocent Plead Guilty at High Rate.” The study was alarming in that 55% of its subjects admitted guilt to something they did not do. Barry Scheck and the Innocence Project have also revealed that of the hundreds of DNA-based exonerations nationwide – exonerations that prove without question that either no crime was committed or the wrong person was convicted – 25% were convicted by plea deals. I wrote of two such cases in “Thy Brother’s Keeper: Why Wrongful Convictions Should Matter to You.”
Plea deals are especially a threat to truth and justice in high profile cases in which police, prosecutors, and judges can become so blinded by “the message” they’re sending, or the career boost that a high profile case brings, that justice itself is lost in the intensity of media spotlights. Such prosecutions require extra caution and judicial oversight for they are subject to all manner of human agendas having nothing to do with justice.
I mentioned the outcome of the Msgr. William Lynn case in “Indicted We Stand: Penance, Penn State, and Catholic Culture.” Msgr. Lynn now sits in prison because justice has been debased in Philadelphia, and blinded by the light, and it seems eerily familiar to me. It was a conviction that came not as a response to evidence, but to an emotional bias built by charged rhetoric and media glare.
Having been on the receiving end of trophy justice, I have come to recognize it when I see its ugly face. As I began to type this post, I received a letter from Bill Donohue at The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. Ever vigilant to help assure both liberty and justice for Catholics, Bill Donohue summed up two situations you’ve read of on These Stone Walls:
“The injustice done to you is mirrored in the appalling overreaction to some inartful expressions by Fr. Benedict Groeschel . . . But it is the obscene injustice that has been done to Msgr. Lynn in Philadelphia that is most disturbing right now.”
This case gets quickly convoluted, so bear with me. The charge of child endangerment against Msgr. Lynn was contingent upon guilt in another case, that of Father Edward Avery, charged with sexually assaulting a ten-year old boy thirteen years ago in 1999, and now laicized. The Father Avery case did not go to trial so evidence – if there was any – was never tested before a jury. Instead, Avery accepted a plea deal last March to serve a prison sentence of two-and-a-half to five years.
The alleged victim in that case, a 23-year-old man awaiting settlements in a civil lawsuit, never testified under oath in the case against Father Avery because of the plea deal. He only testified in the subsequent trial of Msgr. William Lynn charged with child endangerment for assigning Father Avery to the young man’s parish in the 1990s. In that high profile media-hyped trial, a jury acquitted Msgr. Lynn of most of the charges brought by the Philadelphia D.A., but convicted him of a single count of child endangerment for his perceived role in the Father Avery case.
Judge M. Teresa Sarmina then sentenced Msgr. Lynn to three to six years in prison, a longer prison term than that given in the plea deal to Father Avery, the priest alleged to have abused the boy. The justice aimed at Father Avery was to punish a man for a crime. The justice aimed at Msgr. Lynn was to send a message to the Catholic Church. Since the priest’s plea deal and Msgr. Lynn’s conviction, the judge has refused to consider any form of conditional release for Msgr. Lynn pending appeal. The “trophy” remains in prison.
Now comes Ralph Cipriano, a veteran reporter who in the 1990s was religion reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He was recruited by The Beasley Firm to blog about the case of “The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. William J. Lynn, et al.” Mr. Cipriano is one of 30 journalists accredited by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office to cover this important case. The result is the Philadelphia Priest Abuse Trial Blog.
The title of Ralph Cipriano’s September 17 post on that blog leaves nothing to the imagination: “Defense: Secret Polygraph Test Indicates Father Avery Never Assaulted 10-Year-Old Altar Boy, So Monsignor Lynn Was Convicted of a Crime That Never Happened.” The post goes on to reveal that Father Avery was subjected to a polygraph test. The polygraph results supported Avery’s initial statements that he did not know his accuser, had never even met him, and never sexually assaulted the young man who has been identified throughout both criminal proceedings and lawsuits simply as “Billy Doe.”
Father Avery passed the polygraph. An article by John P. Martin in the Philadelphia Inquirer (“Lawyers claim priest’s plea deal was a lie,” Sept. 18, 2012) revealed that the attractive plea deal offer came when Avery’s lawyer released the polygraph results to the Philadelphia prosecutors. Even when accepting the plea deal, Avery “denied having engaged in sexual contact” with the accuser, and “explicitly informed the Commonwealth that he was entering into his guilty plea solely for the purpose of . . . reducing the risk of a far greater prison sentence after trial.”
The deal given to Father Avery had one condition. He also had to agree to plead guilty to conspiracy in the case against Msgr. Lynn and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Father Avery was supposed to face trial along with Msgr. Lynn, but that changed when he accepted the plea deal.
According to John Martin’s Philadelphia Inquirer article, prosecutors never told Monsignor William Lynn’s defense of the polygraph results in the case of Father Avery. The lawyers learned of this only by chance, and claim that the failure violates court rules that require prosecutors to inform the defense of all information that could help a defendant prove his innocence. “We all sort of suspected that Avery didn’t do it,” Msgr. Lynn’s lawyers stated. “But we didn’t know he told the Commonwealth that.”
This story could use the likes of another TV law and order icon. New York City Police Commissioner Frank Reagan might be trusted to sift through all the news media minefields that so often distort justice these days, and to get to the unbiased truth. Frank Reagan could do this. He does it every week on TV’s best foot forward in a show called “Blue Bloods.”
In a recent episode, Commissioner Reagan and his prosecutor daughter, Erin, discovered evidence that a man they put behind bars years earlier may in fact have been innocent. They launched their own investigation to correct their error and help free the wrongfully convicted man. The Reagan’s did what they do every week: the right thing.
But it’s still TV, and it doesn’t always happen that way. In Philadelphia, prosecutors have had no comment on the public revelation of something they knew all along, but kept hidden. Meanwhile, “Billy Doe’s” contingency lawyer – apparently seeing dollar signs fade – described the new development simply as “complete BS.”
The Church is not without blame in this debacle. When priests are falsely accused, they typically cannot afford a defense and their bishops too often throw them to the litigious wolves. For both guilty and innocent alike, the lure of plea deals is then used to further prosecute the Church. In his most recent entry at “A Ram in the Thicket,” Catholic writer Ryan MacDonald wrote of an eerily similar account of priests, polygraphs, and coerced plea deals.
In a recent comment, TSW reader, Antoinette added a quote from Venerable Fulton Sheen, and it’s this week’s last word:
“One of the greatest disasters that happened to modern civilization was for democracy to inscribe ‘liberty’ on its banners instead of ‘justice.’ Because ‘liberty’ was considered the ideal, it was not long before some men interpreted it as meaning ‘freedom from justice.’” (Archbishop Fulton Sheen, “A Declaration of Dependence”)
Click here for some satire from truthinjustice.org: Nifonging your way to success