Think about the most consequential moment of your life. That moment that you were nervously anticipating. Maybe it was the day you were awaiting college admissions results. Maybe it was the day your child underwent a high-risk surgery. Maybe it was the time that your wife was battling numerous pregnancy complications and you were unsure if your baby would survive. Maybe it was the day you accepted a job offer in another state. No matter how large or small the moment seemed to others, to you that was one of the most important moments of your life. It mattered. You desperately cared about the outcome.
How would you feel if as you sat in the waiting room eagerly awaiting news that your child’s surgery was a success, you overheard the doctor state to her colleague, “I do not really care about this surgery. I have way more important surgeries scheduled in the future. Whatever happens, happens.” You would be livid! This is your daughter’s life! The doctor does not care about the outcome of a high-risk surgery that will affect her for the rest of her life? If that were my daughter, I would fly out of my seat and demand to speak to a supervisor. I would yank my child out of the operating room and rush her to a different hospital. I would file a grievance against the doctor and her staff. I would not put my daughter’s life in that doctor’s hands.
While less extreme, the California Bar Examination results were important to me. I had attended law school for three years. I had paid an exorbitant amount of money to take the classes. I studied around the clock seven days a week. I dedicated four months of my life to rigorously studying for the bar exam. I skipped all social functions. I lost touch with friends. The only time I left the house was to go to my bar review lessons or a 6 a.m. yoga class. I did not put on makeup, comb my hair, or dress in anything but workout clothes for the entire four-month period.
The stress of the bar examination was enormous. I had dedicated the past three years of my life to this endeavor. I did not have the stamina in me to take the examination again if I failed. I felt as if my life was on the line. Day-after-day for months I anxiously awaited the results. I had so much invested in the outcome of the examination that I would have been furious had I learned that the grader of the examination merely read one of six essays and made a conclusion about my intellectual prowess based on that one answer. I would have been enraged had the grader solely skimmed my answers and haphazardly assigned me a score. My life was in that person’s hands and I wanted him or her to treat me fairly.
Oftentimes, when people think about the criminal justice system, you hear comments such as “I hope you have a good attorney.” Of course, it truly is important to have a fierce and zealous advocate fighting on your behalf. You are relying upon your defense attorney to select the correct composition of jurors, to appeal to the jury, present a spellbinding opening statement, expertly cross-examine prosecution witnesses, call the strongest defense witnesses, and seal the deal with a memorable closing argument. You want an attorney who has your best interests at heart and helps you receive the most favorable outcome on your case and your life, not his.
However, what many people do not think about is the other side of the criminal justice equation—the prosecutor. A criminal defendant’s life is equally in the hands of the prosecutor. Just as you would not want a surgeon who performed a surgery on you just because she wanted the experience, neither do you want a prosecutor that will not plea bargain with you merely because she wants the trial experience. Just as you do not want a surgeon who is more concerned with future surgeries that appear more serious on paper, you do not want a prosecutor on your case that solely wants your case to be over so he can move onto his next case. You do not want a prosecutor who boasts, “I won’t even look at this case much before we start trial. I have more important cases to worry about.”
This is how injustice manifests. The prosecutor does not talk to his single witness to see if her statement, as recorded by police, is accurate. The prosecutor does not spend time trying to decide if a borderline case is even worth prosecuting by conducting a thorough investigation. The prosecutor does not open the discovery envelope containing the exculpatory defense witness statements until the case has been assigned to a trial court.
The prosecutor treats your case as if it does not matter, because to him, it truly does not matter. He will go home at the end of the day, have a nice meal, and sleep on a luxurious bed. He will not be concerned about the years you spend in jail or the negative impacts the conviction will have on your personal life. He will not care about the fact that he prosecuted a case that probably should have resolved. It will not impact him that he assumed you were guilty just because he read the police officer’s version of the events. He will forget about you. To him, he is doing his job and getting so-called criminals off the streets. It does not matter if the punishment far exceeds what is fair and just for the crime you committed. It does not even matter that you are not guilty, yet you have been falsely convicted. He will still forget about you.
Defense attorneys can behave in similar manners. There are bad apples in every profession. However, oftentimes, society focuses on the more glaring instances of injustice while overlooking other contributing factors. The nonchalant attitude certain prosecutors have about some, or all, of the criminal cases assigned to them helps ensure that inequity results in our criminal justice system.