Prosecutors Help People, But How Often?

 Posted on January 31, 2009 in Uncategorized

Baby criminal-defense lawyer Murray Newman writes:

The thing I loved the most about being a prosecutor was helping victims of crime. There was a profound feeling of doing something important when meeting with the victim's family on a murder case, or the surviving members of an aggravated sexual assault, robbery, or assault and telling them you would do everything in your power on their cases.

I think prosecutors, current- and ex-, often romanticize the job. They tend to remember the capital murder and the robbery while forgetting the hundred crack pipes and five hundred DWIs that came before those (confirmation bias?). Yet there are clearly some cases in which the government, by getting and punishing the right guy, makes someone else's life better. For example, in an aggravated sexual assault case the victim might rationally feel safer with her assailant behind bars; in a theft case the victim might receive restitution if the thief is on probation.

This topic comes to my mind because I've been pondering Lateral Hire‘s assignment to the Child Abuse Division (sorry, now known as the Crimes Against Children Division - change for its own sake) of the Harris County District Attorney's Office. The Child Abuse division tends to get things wrong fairly often (that comes from being staffed in part by true believers who rely on the word of young children), but when it is prosecuting the right guy there is the chance that, if it screws up, a child will be in danger. The assignment of a lawyer with zero criminal trial experience to that trial division is grossly inappropriate... almost offensive. (Update: Ms. Hire has been transferred to the Appellate Division, where her experience may be a better fit.)

Trying cases, believe it or not, is hard. We don't learn to do it in law school. It gets easier, but there is a learning curve. A lawyer (defense or prosecutor) whose first trial is a major felony is There have got to be fifty billets in the DA's Office in which a non-trial lawyer can learn to try cases (or not try cases) without putting anyone in danger if she screws up a righteous case. Isn't that what misdemeanor courts are for?

Here's a question: of the subset of righteous cases (those in which a factually-guilty person is being prosecuted), in what percentage will an identifiable human be worse off if the accused is not punished as the government seeks than if he is?

I'm not talking about "society" being worse off, and I'm not talking about speculation. I'm also not talking about "honoring the dead", whatever that means. I'm talking about being able to say truthfully, "by punishing person X, we help person Y because... " or "by not punishing X, we hurt Y because..."

The vast majority of drug cases are out of the running. Crimes against corporations, too (if you wanted to help corporations, you'd be getting rich as a civil lawyer, not working for a living as a prosecutor or defense lawyer, and if I wanted to fight against corporations, I'd be a PI lawyer, and would be a wealthy man).

DWIs? Nope.

Murder cases? Putting the killer in prison (or killing him) doesn't bring back the dead guy, but it is conceivable that it can otherwise improve the survivors' lives. So maybe sometimes but, in my experience, not all or even most.

Assault cases? Probably when you're talking about taking an abuser out of an abusive situation. Otherwise, usually not.

The Texas judiciary's statistics are singularly unhelpful (1/3 of the cases are listed as "other"), but I'm guessing, based on my own observations, that in maybe 25% of cases will someone's life be improved by someone else's conviction.

What do you think? Your impressions? Informed guesses?

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