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July 15, 2011

Roger Clemens, Casey Anthony, and the (Antiquated?) Notion of the Special Role of Prosecutors

In the wake of several high-profile criminal trials, a whole lot of Monday morning quarterbacking is going on. Talking-heads are lambasting the lawyers in the Casey Anthony trial, and sports radio personalities are speculating that Major League Baseball covertly paid off Justice Department lawyers to tank the case against Roger Clemens.

As a former prosecutor, I know that the vast majority of such criticism is issued by “experts” who lack sufficient knowledge of the circumstances to judge. Therefore, I do not mean in this post to add my opinion to this growing pile of speculation, bombast, and preening. But, I fear that a public perception seems to be developing as a result of these incidents that prosecutors are nothing more than hired guns employed by the government, and their alleged role (to win at all costs) is indistinguishable from that of any other lawyer in the justice system.

Such a public perception is a terrible shame, and it’s time to remind the public and prosecutors of exactly what prosecutors ought to be.

I vividly remember the first lesson taught in my month-long orientation when I became a prosecutor. The First Assistant State Attorney recounted for us the mantra of Attorney General Janet Reno who, until just a few years before my start-date, had served as the State Attorney for the jurisdiction in which I served. That mantra was: “Our first goal as prosecutors is to ensure that the innocent are never prosecuted, and our second goal is to ensure that the guilty are punished to the full extent that they deserve punishment.”

That message stuck with me even when it became clear that a few of my colleagues, and even some supervisors, hadn’t fully digested the import of those words. But, I was lucky to have “grown up” as a prosecutor observing some of the most forthright lawyers I would ever meet. From them, I gleaned the nature of the special role of prosecutors.

Being a prosecutor means being the lawyer who is always in the right. By that, I don’t mean that the accused is always guilty or that defense attorneys are always in the wrong. Far from it. Instead, I mean that the special role of the prosecutor in our justice system is defined by the fact that prosecutors can choose their own cases. If they cannot prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt, they can (and must) drop it. As a result, until the day of trial, prosecutors must objectively assess the evidence against the accused with an eye toward ensuring that, come trial day, they are sure they are advocating on the side of justice. That is a unique and liberating role for a lawyer to fill.

Being a prosecutor also means conducting oneself in a way that demonstrates objectivity and respect, even to those who might not deserve it. Atticus Finch was a criminal defense attorney, but he serves ably as a role model for prosecutors: completely unassailable in terms of credibility, veracity, and dignity. I remember once watching a trial conducted by a legendary capital prosecutor in my office, who I respected deeply. As the jury was being led to lunch and the defense witness was getting up to stretch his legs, the prosecutor and the witness nearly bumped into one another. The witness gave the prosecutor a malevolent glance, while the prosecutor concurrently and spontaneously said “Oh, pardon me, Sir.” I happened to see that two of the jurors, waiting to exit the jury box, witnessed the incident, commented to each other quietly about it, and seemed to recognize the dignity the prosecutor accorded to the man who clearly saw him as an enemy. That reaction gained the prosecutor credibility with the jurors because they could tell that his advocacy was not fueled by personal animosity but by a genuine, detached search for justice.

By contrast, just about everyone with a television recently witnessed a prosecutor laughing openly in a court of law, blatantly and disrespectfully mocking the closing argument of defense counsel in the Casey Anthony prosecution. Just yesterday, the nation learned that the federal judge assigned to the Roger Clemens trial severely upbraided federal prosecutors for repeatedly violating pre-trial orders and making errors that “even a first year law student” would know not to make. Prosecutors, like all other attorneys, are humans who may make mistakes and should be accorded a degree of leniency for excusable gaffes, especially newer lawyers. Nonetheless, intentional or mean-spirited malfeasance, especially at the hands of seasoned veterans, constitutes conduct utterly unacceptable for a lawyer representing the People, the State, the Commonwealth, or the United States of America.

Most prosecutors serve in their roles admirably. But, these latest examples of prosecutorial conduct should serve as object-lessons by which to teach young prosecutors that their role in the justice system is unique. Their responsibility to objectivity transcends the innate tendency to compete for the sake of competition.

In short, prosecutors have no client other than justice. This ideal should be paramount.

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