Cross Examination

Article excerpt

LOCAL PROSECUTORS ARE THE LAST SACRED COW IN JOURNALISM. BUT SUM JOURNALISTS HAVE FOUND THE VALUE OF A MORE THOROUGH

Some journalistic epiphanies take a long time to form. In my case, 30 years. That is how long it took me to realize somebody needed to conduct a systematic examination of the nation's 2,341 local prosecutors' offices.

During an era when journalists tend to be skeptical about the performance of elected and appointed government officials at all levels, prosecutors qualify as the last sacred cow: assumed to be acting in the public interest, rarely scrutinized and, if covered at all, covered favorably.

In lots of newsrooms, the shorthand for the criminal justice beat is "cops and courts." That traditional label says a lot by what it fails to mention - the prosecutor. My painfully slow epiphany is that prosecutors are the linchpin of the criminal justice system. They receive information from the police about an alleged crime before any defense attorney or judge receives information, and information is power. No case can move forward without the prosecutor's assent. In most jurisdictions, about 95 percent of the crimes charged never reach trial; that means 95 percent of the time, prosecutors are acting as judge and jury combined, all behind closed doors. Furthermore, when a case does reach trial, no matter how wisely or unwisely judges, defense attorneys and juries act, it is usually won or lost because of the way the prosecutor presents the evidence.

Every day, prosecutors in district attorneys' offices throughout the United States decide if people arrested by local police should be:

* Charged with a crime.

* Placed back on the streets, or jailed.

* Allowed to sign a plea agreement, or proceed to trial.

* A candidate for the death penalty if the law permits that outcome.

* Heard after imprisonment because new evidence suggests a wrongful conviction.

Counting the elected district attorney at the top of the office pyramid and the lawyers appointed by the district attorney to serve justice, there are about 30,000 prosecutors working in the United States. Many of these prosecutors are dedicated, skilled public servants. Many others are mediocre. Some should never have been allowed to wield power. But few people know much about their local prosecutors. Most of the time, in most of those 2,341 jurisdictions, journalists are nowhere to be seen as new prosecutors are hired, as veterans are promoted, as other veterans retire or are forced out.

The sacred cow syndrome blessedly appears to be fading in some newsrooms, however. One factor: In cases with DNA evidence, the number of documented wrongful convictions is approaching 200. They demonstrate like nothing else the fallibility of prosecutors. Everybody makes mistakes. But in a system supposedly devoted more to serving justice than to winning at all costs, in a system supposedly loaded with safeguards, how do prosecutors allow innocent people to be charged with a crime, indicted by a grand jury, incarcerated for months or years while awaiting trial, convicted and sentenced?

THE CENTER FOR PUBLIC INTEGRITY COMES THROUGH

Hoping to find somebody to support a national examination of prosecutors, I approached Charles Lewis at the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C. Lewis is a former CBS 60 Minutes producer who had his own epiphany about 15 years ago. He left his job to start an organization that would conduct investigative journalism in the public interest, in-depth, on topics normally ignored. Against gigantic odds, the Center for Public Integrity has not only survived, but thrived.

Lewis and his staff raised money from foundations and individuals to make my idea a reality. The Center hired two individuals to work with me - Neil Gordon, a Baltimore lawyer who wanted to change careers, and Brooke Williams, a recent University of Missouri Journalism School graduate. …