April 8, 2008

This Should Not Be Remarkable

The new District Attorney in Dallas County, Texas, thinks that his job and that of his office is to pursue and advance the interests of justice. This means that from time to time, a prosecution will be dropped or not initiated if the evidence appears to cast doubt on the guilt of the accused. And this is apparently an unusual and controversial attitude among prosecutors in particular and the community in general.

That last point what upsets me about the story – if there is substantial evidence that can reasonably be interpreted to indicate doubt about the guilt of an accused, the prosecution owes a duty to the accused, to the court, to justice in both its particular and generalized manifestations, and to sound ethics and morals to stop prosecuting the defendant (or to never initiate such a prosecution in the first place).

It is not only the job of the defense attorney to look to prove innocence or even reasonable doubt. The prosecutor should do the same – for a lot of reasons. First, the prosecutor should do it because it is in the interests of justice, who is the prosecutor’s ultimate client, that only the guilty should be imprisoned. Second, the prosecutor should do it in order to determine whether the case is winnable at trial or not. Third, the prosecutor should do it because her immediate client, the state, needs to be protected from civil liability. That doesn’t mean you abort a prosecution on insubstantial evidence like the defendant orally denying committing the crime after having been accused of it (without corroboration, anyway). It means doing your job as a lawyer and a prosecutor.

I expect Dallas County’s conviction rate will increase with this mentality, even if the number of raw convictions obtained declines for a short time. More important than the conviction rate, though, is the likelihood that the number of people who successfully sue the county for wrongful imprisonment (Dallas County currently has the highest per-prisoner rate of such lawsuits in the nation) after they prove their actual innocence in a civil court or a habeas corpus action will go down. This will, after a period of time, result in more financial resources will be available to protect the people of Texas against actual criminals rather than defending Dallas County against litigation. Or even, imagine this, not be taxed at all.

It should be unremarkable that the D.A. would shrink from prosecuting someone about whom there is a reasonable doubt of guilt. Instead, this is viewed as an extraordinarily progressive and possibly dangerous mentality. That’s simply wrong, and indicative of a dangerous and wrongful attitude that infects both a prosecutor’s office as well as the public in general.

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