What’s the Prosecutor’s Job?

prosecutionMany people believe that it is the job of a prosecutor to fight as hard as he or she can to prove everyone guilty, convict them, put them in jail, or otherwise exact the most severe punishment possible against all defendants. This is a common misunderstanding, although it is an understandable misunderstanding. It likely arises from the old saying that says: “Somewhere in the middle lies the truth” and that axiom probably came from a basic misunderstanding of Aristotle’s principle of “golden mean.”

What Does Aristotle Have to Do With my Case?

Not too much. But what Aristotle was suggesting was that between two extremes of behavior the middle path is the path that a person should choose. In this way, many people believe that if the prosecution fights as hard as they can (one extreme), and the defense does the same (the other extreme), then the “truth” will emerge. This is an example of “the middle ground fallacy.” And it just isn’t so.

What Does it Mean to “Do Justice”?

But rather than veering off too far into philosophy, the first responsibility of all prosecuting attorneys simply put, is to do justice. “Justice,” of course, is a vague word. It often means different things to different people. However, when applied to prosecuting attorneys, the word “justice” has a specific meaning. Prosecutors’ responsibility to “do justice” means that he or she must make every effort to see that the guilty are punished, while at the same time safeguarding the rights of the accused and the innocent.

The United States Supreme Court wrote, “The government attorney in a criminal prosecution is not an ordinary party to a controversy, but a servant of the law with a twofold aim that guilt shall not escape, or innocence suffer.” Criminal courts are adversarial places. Prosecutors and defense attorneys alike want to win their cases. But only the prosecutor has the obligation to protect the rights of his/her opponent at the same time.

A Prosecutor’s Job isn’t Just to Convict People

The American Bar Association’s ethical guidance restates and reinforces The United States Supreme Court’s view when they write “The primary duty of the prosecutor is to seek justice within the bounds of the law, not merely to convict” and goes on to say that a prosecutor must only serve the public interest, so they should always act with integrity. They should only pursue appropriate criminal charges that have the appropriate severity and they should exercise discretion by not pursuing criminal charges except in appropriate circumstances. A prosecutor should always seek to protect the innocent and only to convict the guilty, should always consider the interests of both the victims and the witnesses, and should respect the legal and constitutional rights of all persons, including defendant and suspects alike. That all sounds nice in theory, but how is this done in practice? Three words -- “exercise sound discretion.”

How Does a Prosecutor Exercise Sound Discretion?

What does it mean to “exercise sound discretion?” It’s just a fancy way of saying “make good choices.” A “good choice’ is not totally subjective. This means that a prosecutor cannot simply decide that hiding evidence or calling opposing counsel names are good choices. There are many cases, statutes and model ethical rules that put some meat on the bones of what is or is not a “good choice.”

I’ll mention just a few practical tips and ethical rules that guide a good prosecutor. The National District Attorneys Association publishes a whole book that seeks to give guidance to prosecutors as to what is proper and what is not. For purposes of this article, here are just a few:

  • Don’t(s)–Prosecutors have a duty to avoid knowingly making frivolous objections or making objections for the sole purpose of disrupting opposing counsel….attempting to ask clearly improper questions, or introducing clearly inadmissible evidence and so forth.
  • Do(s)–There are also things that prosecuting attorneys have a duty to do. They must act with good faith, candor, and courtesy in all their professional relations, should act with integrity in all interactions, communications, and agreements with opposing counsel and should treat all witnesses professionally, fairly and with due consideration.

Aside from this guidance, one of the most serious duties of a prosecutor is to turn over ALL evidence to the defense, especially evidence that tends to show that defendant could possibly be “not guilty” or even evidence that even tends to mitigate, or lessen, the defendants culpability even if defendant seems guilty. The bottom line is that the prosecutor’s duty is not simply to “win” but to faithfully pursue justice in every case. This is difficult. Prosecutors have a lot of power over people’s’ lives, but with great power comes great responsibilities.

Hire an Experienced Legal Team

Since 1990, the attorneys at Mitchell S. Sexner & Associates LLC have been representing those charged with criminal and traffic matters, from misdemeanors to felonies, in Chicago and throughout Illinois. You can call our 24 hour phone lines at (800) 996-4824 any time of day or contact us online when seeking a free legal consultation on your case. Call today.

Written by Mitchell S. Sexner Last Updated : May 6, 2020