Five Tips for New Prosecutors
by Jonce B. Chidister
Assistant Prosecuting Attorney, Dunklin County
The role of prosecutor is unique in the legal profession. Unlike other attorneys, whose only job is to zealously advocate on behalf of a client, a prosecutor has an ethical obligation to uphold justice and ensure that the defendant’s rights are being protected. With that in mind, here are five things that new prosecutors should keep in mind when assuming that role.
1. Don’t do anything that might impair your credibility before the Court.
Whether explicitly stated or not, there is an inherent trust that must exist between judges and prosecutors. In short, if judges don’t feel you are credible, they will look on your requests with suspicion and not trust that you’re doing the right thing. This can be especially crucial when you need a search warrant or emergency arrest warrant at 3:00 AM.
2. Likewise, be courteous to clerks and court reporters.
This rule is equally applicable to any lawyer, not just new ones, and not just prosecutors. If the Circuit Clerks like you, they will go out of their way to help you find what you need. If not, you might get it eventually. If the Court reporter doesn’t like you, your stammers, stutters, mumblings, and fumblings will be duly noted for anyone whose job it becomes to read the transcript of your hearing or trial.
3. Don’t be afraid to change your mind.
During the progression of a case, evidence may come in, such as new statements or additional information not discovered at the time of charging. Sometimes it sheds light on the background of events or contradicts what you think you know about the situation. Don’t ignore contrary or seemingly conflicting evidence. New evidence doesn’t always mean someone is (or was) lying. Genuinely held beliefs may simply be mistaken. It never hurts to sit down and review the entire file or discuss new evidence with the investigating officers to evaluate the state of the case or reconsider plea offers.
4. Speaking of officers… Communication is a two way street.
They are your most vital connection to the outside world. Without good investigation, you can’t present your case to the jury. Officers interview witnesses, collect evidence, and give you the initial overview to make charging decisions. Communicate with them. Ask questions. If something isn’t right or is incomplete, don’t just tell them it’s wrong, explain the issue and how to fix it. The good ones will learn. The rest will eventually get tired of your calls and letters and realize its less work to do it right the first time.
5. Ask for input, but reserve the right to decide.
When it comes to charging decisions, plea offers, and whether or not to ultimately proceed to trial, remember that you are in charge of the case. Victims, families, officers, and sometimes the public have an interest in the case and opinions on what should happen, but the ultimate responsibility for the case belongs to the prosecutor. Many times, mitigating factors that are either unknown or ignored by others will surface. Other times, evidentiary or credibility problems may arise leaving doubt as to the ability to win the case at trial. Conversely, you have a responsibility to protect the public, even in cases where the victim is unsympathetic or doesn’t wish to proceed. Look at everything, including the opinions of others, but make your own decision.