An Interview With Sam Dalton, Now In His Seventh Decade Of Criminal Defense Law

The year 2013 marked the 50th anniversary of two landmark Supreme Court cases in criminal defense law. In Brady v. Maryland, the Court ruled that prosecutors are required by law to turn favorable evidence over to defense attorneys. And in Gideon v. Wainwright, the Court ruled that for felony cases, the government is obligated to provide indigent defendants with adequate legal representation.

Earlier this year, I interviewed longtime criminal defense attorney Sam Dalton for a long investigative piece on prosecutorial misconduct. Dalton is something of a legend in Louisiana courtrooms. He has just entered his seventh decade of practicing law. In that time, he has defended more than 300 death penalty cases. Of those, he spared 16 defendants from execution -- this in a state that's rather fond of executing people. He has also been a voice for civil rights, he chartered a model public defender system, and he's currently leading a charge to impose some accountability on Louisiana's more egregiously misbehaving prosecutors. My favorite thing about him: Outside his office door there's a "welcome" mat that reads: Come back with a warrant.

My interview with Dalton extended well beyond the quotes I used for my article. I found him to be a fascinating figure, and certainly someone with some unique and well-earned insight into the way the criminal justice system works. So the full interview follows.

This is also my last contribution here at Huffington Post. Starting January 8, I'll begin a daily blog at the Washington Post that will focus on civil liberties and the criminal justice system. My interview with Dalton seems like an ideal way to wind down both my time here at HuffPost, as well as a good way to end a year marked by milestone anniversaries of Supreme Court rulings protecting the rights of the accused.

You're one of a few people still practicing law who was also practicing before the Brady decision came down in 1963. How did Brady change the administration of criminal law in America?

Brady made things a little better, at least at first. The younger prosecutors tried to take it seriously, and would try to comply, but there was still a community standard to evade disclosure. So they'd actually hide it from their bosses when they'd turn over favorable evidence to us.

So complying with the new Supreme Court requirement to turn favorable evidence over to defendants would get them in trouble?

Yes. You aren't going to change an entrenched culture overnight. The decision gave us a tool to fight withheld evidence after a conviction, but it didn't change the culture of evasion. Change has come slowly. Very slowly. And in some places, like Orleans Parish, the ruling was just ignored. The Brady problem really became atrocious under [former and longtime Orleans Parish District Attorney Harry] Connick. Nondisclosure was routine, and it's ridiculous to say he didn't know about it. He was too competent not to know what was happening.

Why has it been so difficult to get prosecutors to comply with Brady?

It's a mix of the system and the personalities. First of all, it takes a certain sort of personality to want to become a prosecutor. It takes someone with ambition, usually political ambition. And it takes a person with greed, not necessarily for money, but for power. Second, you have to look at what the system rewards. The best way to get attention for yourself as a prosecutor is to put a lot of people in jail. There's no votes to be won for deciding not to prosecute someone in the interests of justice. No prosecutor runs for higher office by touting the charges he didn't bring, or the fairness he showed to those accused of terrible crimes. You put those two problems together, and you get a culture that encourages deliberate indifference, especially once they're publicly invested in a particular suspect.

These sound like intractable problems. Looking back on your career, have you grown more pessimistic over the years?

We have a fine, beautiful legal system. But it has been prostituted by bad prosecutors, bad policemen, and indifferent judges. We need to look at what kind of character we want the people who hold those jobs to possess, and we need to understand the character of the people who most want those jobs. When you look at those two things, I think you'll often find that they're contradictory.


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