Something from a former prosecutor to a new prosecutor.

FarewellToday is my last day in the prosecutor’s office. Then I begin my law practice here in Jefferson City. I expect that I will do a significant amount of criminal defense work, despite the fact that most of the last 14 years have been spent in charging and (mostly) convicting criminals. The number of felons that I have sent to the state pen is more than I can count.

Not surprisingly, there are many folks who cannot understand how one can switch sides and defend the accused instead of prosecuting them, especially after so many years.

I remember feeling that way early in my career. Naturally, when you are brand new, you are scared and feel like you are in over your head. That’s because you are. But after awhile you gain confidence. You’re a professional prosecutor. You become practiced at charging the bad guys and doing whatever it takes (within the rules, of course) to get them convicted.

But the pure pleasure of getting a big conviction does not last. Sure it’s good to give the victim a measure of justice, but you cannot make them whole again. Sadly, they and their families may be damaged for life.

And there is the defendant. His life may be ruined too, and the fact that he deserved it does not make it any less a tragedy.

To the prosecutor who takes my place, I hope you will keep some things in mind:

  • You have the power to help victims and the power to punish those who refuse to follow the law. Be careful what you do with that power, for you also have the power to destroy lives. Try to remember that the accused is owed the same respect as anyone else.
  • I remember a prosecutor who taught that the defendant in a jury trial should be treated with scorn; that he should be dehumanized. Presumably the jury would understand how guilty he must be. I admit that in some of my earlier trials before a jury I adopted a rather contemptuous attitude toward the accused, often refusing to refer to him by name during the trial.
  • Later I discovered how foolish this was: that I would be better received by treating the defendant respectfully and using his proper name. It seems that when the jury understood that I was being fair and decent to the defendant (even though he may have been despicable), they became more trusting and receptive to me because they felt I was giving the guy a fair, honest shake.

It’s great when the right thing turns out to be the most effective. Live long and prosper.