The School of Government and the Conference of District Attorneys co-sponsored Practical Skills for New Prosecutors last week. The five-day course includes 12 hours of Professionalism for New Attorneys requirements, so we spent a lot of time talking about professionalism and ethics. While every attorney should, of course, be familiar with the Rules of Professional Conduct, there are five ethics rules that should be at the top of every prosecutor’s list.
Advocates of criminal justice reform have called for numerous policy changes in recent years, including raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction, eliminating or reducing reliance on money bail, decreasing monetary penalties for poor defendants, ending license revocations as a sanction for failing to appear for court or pay monies owed, and abandoning mandatory minimum sentencing. Many have also advocated for a re-examination of the role of the prosecutor, suggesting that prosecutors could better channel their power and discretion to lessen racial disparities, reduce recidivism, rehabilitate offenders, and cut rates of incarceration. Two reports published last December focus on this re-envisioned prosecutorial function. The first, 21 Principles for the 21st Century Prosecutor, suggests practical steps that prosecutors can take to reduce incarceration and increase fairness. The second, Prosecutorial Attitudes, Perspectives, and Priorities: Insights from the Inside, explores what prosecutors in four prosecutorial districts think about definitions of success, office priorities, community engagement, and racial disparities.
North Carolina is divided into 44 prosecutorial districts. Each is headed by an elected district attorney or, the case of a mid-term vacancy, a district attorney appointed by the governor. District attorneys are constitutionally and statutorily charged with prosecuting criminal actions in their districts. Each district attorney employs a number of assistant district attorneys who assist in carrying out this work. A district attorney may even, as Jonathan discussed in this earlier post, employ a private attorney to assist with prosecution.
When a district attorney identifies a conflict of interest associated with his or her prosecution of a case, the district attorney may seek assistance with the prosecution from another prosecutorial district, the Attorney General’s Special Prosecution Division, the Administrative Office of the Courts, or the Conference of District Attorneys.
Sometimes, however, the district attorney decides to proceed with prosecuting a case notwithstanding a defendant’s insistence that a conflict of interest exists. When that occurs, the defendant may ask the court to remove the prosecutor from the case. May the court do so? If so, what standard governs the court’s determination of whether the prosecutor is disqualified from the case?
Yesterday, the grand jury in St. Louis County, Missouri , declined to indict officer Darren Wilson in connection with the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. Some commentators have criticized the decision of the local prosecutor, Robert McCulloch, to present all the evidence to the grand jury, rather than only evidence that would support an indictment. I don’t think that’s a fair criticism, for reasons I explain below.