Judge H. Lee Sarokin: Prosecutor Charges and Convicts in the Same Day

A banner headline in the New York Times reads: 44 Charged by U.S. in New Jersey Corruption Sweep. The assistant United States Attorney in announcing the charges simultaneously rendered a guilty verdict by concluding: “For these defendants, corruption was a way of life. They existed in an ethics-free zone.” He went on to state that average citizens “don’t have a chance against the culture of influence peddling the investigation unearthed.” Hey, isn’t this why we have juries? Has the presumption of innocence become a quaint old relic?

Those charged may well be guilty of serious crimes, but the time for summations is at trial not at a charging press conference. Unless prosecutors wish to allay fears by announcing the arrest of persons such as serial murderers or rapists, no legitimate purpose is served by a press conference outlining the evidence against the accused and pronouncing their guilt.

In Denver, City Attorney Larry Manzanares committed suicide after being charged with stealing a state-owned computer, which the district attorney announced at a press conference contained pornographic material. The district attorney defended himself by saying that he had treated Mr. Manzanares no differently than anyone else. Therein lies the problem.

The Duke rape case should have taught all prosecutors the potential danger and unfairness of such pre-trial conduct and statements. No acquittal or dismissal of charges will ever end the stigma that attaches to such serious criminal accusations. Prosecutors should present their evidence and summations in the courtroom; not in the media.

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