I am a prosecutor. I am also African American. Both define who I am and how I see things; I embrace this wholeheartedly. And now it’s time for some real talk.
Many people are disturbed by the recent verdicts in the George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn cases, and understandably so. But many people are also under some misconceptions that need to be cleared up.
1. Michael Dunn got away with it. No, he didn’t. A hung jury simply means that the jury couldn’t decide. The prosecutor can choose to try him again or not. A not guilty verdict would mean the end. Two very different things.
2. The prosecutor should be fired for losing cases. That is like saying Peyton Manning or Colin Kaepernick should be fired for not winning football games. It doesn’t work that way. I don’t know or work for the office involved in the recent cases, so I have no opinion on the prosecutors involved. But I do know this; ALL prosecutors take their job seriously, especially when you are at the level of trying murder cases. There is no worse feeling than looking the next of kin in the eyes after a not guilty verdict. No prosecutor wants that.
3. The prosecutor handled the trial badly. There are so many factors that go into a trial. First, you have to have evidence. We can all have “a gut feeling” that someone committed a crime, but a jury cannot convict based on that. A jury makes a decision based on the evidence (or lack of evidence). You can’t judge a prosecutor’s strategy from your armchair. Unless you know exactly what evidence is in the case file, the way the judge has ruled on every motion presented, what evidence has been excluded, and the strengths/weaknesses of the witnesses, it is VERY hard to truly say if the prosecutor did a bad job. You may not like the attorney’s style, what they wear, or how they speak. That’s personality, and subjective. But actual performance is something different.
4. Only the strongest cases go to trial. Not true. Usually, the slam dunk cases aren’t tried because the defendant begs for a plea. The complete dog cases often are resolved as well. It’s the tough, 50/50 chance of winning cases that go. And the reason the case is 50/50 is because there are weaknesses. Sometimes you have witnesses who are not good witnesses–they don’t speak well, they may have other motives, or they may not have a good memory. Maybe there’s no DNA. Whatever the issue is, you have to fight with what you have.
5. The jury was racist. There were times in American history that this was true. But before we say racism in present day, here’s the painful reality. Jurors and attorneys are stuck with the laws that are in place. A prosecutor has to prove a case BEYOND a reasonable doubt. The defense has NO burden. They can sit there and do nothing (although most defense attorneys don’t do that). What does this mean? If there is another reasonable explanation for the evidence, the jury can find the defendant not guilty. Where we all get caught up is whether or not something is reasonable. Many times jurors say “we just don’t know what happened” and give a not guilty verdict. Again, it all goes back to the strength of the evidence. But here is where “We the People” come in. If there is a problematic law that comes to mind, put pressure on your legislature, and use your power of the ballot box! Voting changes laws.
6. Why wasn’t the issue of race addressed? A prosecutor can’t come out and call a defendant a racist unless there is concrete proof. For instance, did the defendant use a racial slur in the course of the crime? Is he affiliated with a hate group? Has a history of attacking minorities? If the answer is no, it is unethical and irresponsible for the prosecutor to make race an issue, and can result in a conviction being overturned on appeal. Always remember: the defense gets a ton of leeway in trial. They can do anything from starting their opening statement with a “knock knock” joke, to completely vilifying the victim without consequences. A prosecutor cannot.
7. Prosecutors get a raise or benefits for winning. Not true. Here’s the reality. We don’t do this job for money or glory. Both are non-existent in this line of work. If you are a prosecutor of color, you get attacked more than thanked. We do it because WE BELIEVE. We believe in the rights of victims. We believe that all people in our community need to be protected. We believe — even though some of our friends from law school who are in private practice take better vacations, drive better cars, and have more zeroes at the end of their annual income.
I believe… because often the victims look like me. I believe, because the more prosecutors of color are in this field, the fairer our system becomes. People of color need to be at the table where decisions are being made.
Unless you’ve walked a mile in my shoes, unless you’ve tried my cases, from my perspective, been in the trenches fighting the war on crime, don’t sit in your armchair and judge me. Or anyone else.
Melba Pearson is an attorney, writer, speaker, wife and the Resident Legal Diva. Follow her on Twitter @ResLegalDiva.