This post is about how prosecuting (and defending) sexual abuse cases has made me a better prosecutor, and what should be the highest priority for prosecutors. The subject matter is biographical and the post is a bit long, but it’s worth knowing the prosecutorial philosophy of someone running for County Attorney.
My first jury trial came within a week of being assigned as a Trial Counsel at Fort Bliss, Texas. A Master Sergeant at the Sergeants Major Academy was accused of raping a civilian employee there, and the case had already been through the preliminary stages of litigation and was ready for trial. Since the Academy was in my jurisdiction, I immediately took the lead on the case, but I was assisted by a more experienced JAG officer. We tried the case together, but in the end the Soldier was not convicted of the rape charge (he was convicted of other lesser charges).
I was initially devastated by the not guilty verdict, but I learned some good lessons during that trial. Through vigorous argument and fevered research, I learned a lot about the rape shield rules and what could be presented at trial. The trial was also my first experience with an experienced defense attorney who would stress over and over that “this is just a he-said, she-said case.” I have taken those lessons with me, and arguing the Rules of Evidence and anticipating common defense arguments are always high priorities going into trial.
But the most important lesson was that, at the end of that trial, the survivor was thankful for being given her day in court. Even though it was not the verdict we had hoped for, she had gone through with the prosecution, weathered a blistering cross-examination from the defense attorney, and told a jury in open court that the defendant had assaulted her. For her, that was even more important than the defendant being punished.
That lesson—that justice means more than just a jury verdict or a particular number of years in prison—is of utmost importance for prosecutors. Throughout my time in the Army JAG Corps, I tried dozens of cases of sexual abuse, and that lesson continued to hold true.
I learned other lessons when I was defending cases in the JAG Corps. Successfully defending a case of sexual abuse was often less about what I did and more about how prosecutors failed. Overzealous prosecutors would go too far, present over-rehearsed witness testimony, or rely on argument from authority rather than the facts. Lazy prosecutors would neglect their witnesses or just hope for a guilty plea, not knowing important facts before cases went to trial. In either case, my job as a defense attorney was to exploit the failure of the prosecution.
All of those lessons combine in what is the most important quality for prosecutors: resisting temptation. Every single day, prosecutors are presented with temptation.
- Take the easy way out on this case—dismiss it, plead it down to nothing.
- It won’t make much difference if this case goes to trial, punishment will probably be about the same anyway.
- I don’t want to put the victim through the difficulty of trial [without actually talking to the victim about it].
- This is a messy case, it’s going to be tough to get a guilty verdict.
- The defense attorney on this case is going to make it tough, let’s figure out a deal.
Those temptations exist in every kind of case the County Attorney’s Office prosecutes, and they come up every single day.
During a scene in No Country for Old Men, the grizzled sheriff asks his secretary, “What is it Torbert says about truth and justice?” She replies, “we dedicate ourselves daily anew, or something like that.” Dedicating oneself daily to the pursuit of truth and justice is imperative for a prosecutor. The mission of the County Attorney should be to promote that dedication within the office.
When prosecutors do agree on a guilty plea, it should always be with a clear conscience and knowing that there are good reasons to agree to the plea. Those reasons need not remain secret, either—if the public has questions about a guilty plea, prosecutors should be able to explain why the deal was a good idea.
And when sexual abuse cases, or any other case, are not given to a jury for a decision, survivors and the public should have confidence that the prosecutors making that decision are doing it for the right reasons.
As County Attorney, I will promote daily dedication to truth and justice. Survivors, other crime victims, and the people of Dubuque County should expect no less from their chief prosecutor.