As a college student, I used to tell others that I was going to law school to be a “Law and Order” chic. Who wanted to be a bankruptcy or tax lawyer? Criminal law had all of the action.
After spending four years as a victim advocate and nearly six years as a prosecutor, I know that criminal law was the right field for me. I no longer call myself a “Law and Order” prosecutor though.
The entertainment industry portrays prosecutors in a generally negative light. Watch C.C.H. Pounder portray Tyne Patterson in “Sons of Anarchy” or Jamie Foxx as Nick Rice in “Law Abiding Citizen.” Those fictional characters focus on their win-loss record or furthering their political aspirations. This creates the perception that all prosecutors govern themselves as disgraced former prosecutor Mike Nifong of the Duke lacrosse case.
After nearly a decade working in criminal justice, I know that this perception is false.
The American Bar Association has a special set of rules of professional conduct entitled “Special Responsibilities of a Prosecutor.” These rules reflect the notion that, as a prosecutor, my job is to fight for justice and protect the sanctity of the system. It is not to win cases at any and all costs.
Sometimes this means advocating for criminal defendants to serve lengthy prison sentences. Other times, it means telling crime victims that there’s insufficient evidence to prosecute the accused.
Daily, it translates into days litigating cases in court and hours interviewing and preparing victims and witnesses for testimony. There’s also the unquantifiable amounts of time I spend considering strengths and weakness of every case and wondering how charging decisions I make will all parties down the line.
A frequent mantra in criminal law is that it’s better to let a guilty man go free than to send an innocent one to prison. As a prosecutor, I have reduced or disposed of criminal charges against known violent attackers due to lack of evidence only to watch them reoffend within weeks. I have also endorsed release and dismissal orders when evidence or investigation has exonerated defendants.
Voltaire was correct; with great power comes great responsibility. Prosecutors know this firsthand.
Now, when people ask me what I do for a living, I don’t tell them I’m a “Law and Order” chic. I tell them that I’m a prosecutor who fights for justice. That’s a more accurate depiction of my career in law.