DA Traits: Arrogance and Viciousness or Humility and Compassion

 Posted on March 13, 2008 in Uncategorized

I had an email conversation recently with a friend who's a prosecutor. I wrote:

Our next DA needs to know that he or she is not part of a dynasty, is only temporary, is human and fallible, and answers ultimately to the families of the accused, who greatly outnumber the families of the victims.

He wrote:

I've felt compassion for defendants from DWI offenders to murderers. But their families?.... I don't think I owe anything to a defendant's family.

I tagged this as part of the problem with the Harris County DA's Office. If the DA's minions don't see themselves as answering to the families of the accused as well as the victims, then the DA himself likely doesn't see himself in that role.

But the DA, you see, is an elected official, and another word for the families of the accused is "voters."Now the probable Republican candidate for Harris County DA, Kelly Siegler, spoke to the Houston Chronicle about the anticipated appointment of AUSA Ken Magidson to the interim position of Harris County District Attorney (Houston Chronicle):

In the capacity of being a caretaker, I am not sure what kind of changes he would be expected to make.... I think he would have the best interest of the office at heart.

No. At least, we should hope not. Magidson's responsibility will not be to the Office. As Harris County District Attorney, he will be responsible to the people of Harris County.

If the best interests of the people of Harris County will be served by dismantling and rebuilding the Office, then the Office be damned.

This is not the first time this year that we've heard this attitude from Kelly. In her candidacy announcement she wrote,

The men and women of the Harris County District Attorney's Office are the best in the nation at what they do. They deserve a leader who has been in the trenches with them. The people deserve a District Attorney who knows their way around a courtroom and will run this office with honor and integrity.

To Kelly, the interests of the people are secondary to those of the Office. That's the arrogant attitude we've suffered for the last eight years; the Harris County criminal justice system is reeling already.To the Harris County DA, the Office has to be secondary to the people. Setting aside for now the question of what the people deserve (for they will undoubtedly get that), what the people need is a DA who is willing, if it becomes necessary, to fire everyone - to destroy the Office - to make it work better. I am not one of those who think it is necessary to destroy the Office, but the people need someone whose loyalty to the Office does not blind her to whatever difficult work needs to be done to restore public confidence.

Here's the problem with being an elected DA in the 21st Century. You're forced to prosecute lots and lots of people for victimless crimes. These people have families. Even the people charged with real crimes have families. So for every complainant's family that lauds you, four or five defendants' families revile you.

Twenty years ago the District Attorney might have been a heroic figure. But we've spent 20 years filling prisons, putting people on probation, and creating voters who, personally or through loved ones, have had bad experiences with the system. You may not have noticed this, but most of the people the Harris County DA's Office is prosecuting are black or hispanic, by a greater margin than is explained by the fact that Harris County's population is 63% minority (mostly hispanic and black). Black and hispanic voter turnout is on the rise.So the Harris County DAs have spent decades alienating their constituents by imprisoning their loved ones.

My uncle, a retired Baltimore cop, commented to me that while Baltimore used to have tough-on-crime elected State's Attorneys (SAs), the current elected SA (according to The Google, Scott D. Shellenberger [edit per comments:] Patricia Coats Jessamy), sounded to him more like a defense lawyer than a prosecutor. A political survival reaction, no doubt, to the fact that so many voters have historically had bad experiences with the system.

Another word for the families of the accused is "jurors." The defense bar doesn't keep stats like the Office does, but I'll bet that the Office's stats show an upward trend in acquittals in Harris County. The anecdotal evidence that jurors (even here) are less and less inclined to cut the Office a break is too strong to ignore. In Baltimore, according to Collin, commenting on Wire Writers Speak,

... jury nullification is a daily happening. Around here, people joke about the army of mostly older black women (hereafter: church ladies) who will frequently vote not to convict no matter what. These people pay the toll for our hubris every day, and they clearly are sick of it. the only thing new here is that rich white folks are coming to realize what the church ladies already have.

That's what we have to look forward to in Harris County if we don't get a DA who treats the people - all of the people - well.

My prosecutorial correspondent wrote:

To me, that's a no-win situation. They are usually so outraged at their loved one being charged that anything other than an apology will make them want to kill you.

I think there's at least a scintilla of truth in that. The families of the accused don't always know what really happened; even if their loved one's prosecution is justified, they often don't believe it. Even if the accused really did wrong, he's probably lying to momma. But many people can tell the difference between arrogance and humility, between viciousness and compassion. Even a dog knows the difference between being stumbled over and being kicked. When a person does her job - even an unpleasant job - with humility and compassion, it's hard to hold it against her.

Contrary to popular belief, humility and compassion are not weakness. Entirely to the contrary, they are signs of tremendous strength. Compassion doesn't require that wrongdoers be set free. It's possible to be humble and compassionate and still put people in prison. In fact, I've long maintained that the arrogant, vicous prosecutors are most dangerous to the innocent, but the humble, compassionate prosecutors are most dangerous to the guilty.

Lest this be seen as an endorsement of Pat Lykos: it's not. I have no reason to believe that politician Lykos would behave with any more humility or compassion than prosecutor Siegler. (Not that either of them has much chance in the general election against CO Bradford.)

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