Truth or consequences

Zero tolerance for prosecutors who shortcut justice

Prosecutors like Ken Honeycutt and Scott Brewer do justice no favors when they hold winning in higher regard than pursuing justice. The N.C. State Bar has accused the two ex-prosecutors of misconduct, saying they lied to the court and withheld evidence in a case that put a man on death row for seven years.

In the past, the state bar has given only wrist slaps to prosecutors who commit such wrongs. This time, it must send a strong message: When those sworn to uphold the law step outside the lines, they face consequences.

Mr. Honeycutt has said he did nothing wrong when, as district attorney for the 20th Judicial District, he prosecuted Jonathan Hoffman for murder in 1996. Mr. Brewer, his assistant and now a District Court judge in Rockingham, has said nothing.

Yet the bar investigation's finding is unequivocal: The two deliberately failed to tell the court a deal was cut with a key witness in exchange for his testimony. That violates the rules of evidence.

The bar's opinion is also clear: Not telling helped the prosecutors win -- and helped put Mr. Hoffman on death row.

Some prosecutors have the mindset that it's more important to win a murder case than to arrive at the truth. But justice doesn't mean winning at any cost. The criminal justice system must protect the public from murderers, yes. But it must also make sure law enforcement finds, charges, tries and convicts the right person.

Mr. Hoffman's case is not the first time an N.C. prosecutor's zeal upended justice. Two years ago, death row inmate Alan Gell was acquitted in a retrial after sitting on death row for a murder he did not commit. In his first trial, prosecutors withheld key evidence showing Mr. Gell could not have committed the murder. Yet the State Bar gave them only a reprimand -- the lightest punishment possible.

The state wastes millions of dollars in precious court resources when it convicts an innocent man, and it costs millions more to undo the wrong. Meanwhile, the real criminal walks the streets.

Alan Gell and Jonathan Hoffman could have died -- because prosecutors who convicted them withheld key information from the defense. If that doesn't scare you, it should. The state bar should take a strong stand.