Saturday, March 28, 2009

Call me Ishmael

Apparently the Harris County District Attorney's Office thinks it's a good idea to train baby prosecutors how to try cases by refusing to plea bargain on the "best" case in each of the 15 misdemeanor courts and forcing citizens to trial. (See this post from my colleague, Houston criminal defense attorney Mark Bennett's blog.)

According to First Assistant District Attorney Jim Leitner, a former criminal defense attorney, doing so would improve morale among the prosecutors in the misdemeanor courts and provide valuable trial experience.

"Everyone was fired up about this at first. It's an innovative idea that I had. If the public thinks this is bad, if the judges think it's bad, then we won't do it." -- Jim Leitner, HCDAO
Leitner suggested the prosecutors pick the case that has the most favorable facts and evidence and refuse to plead the case out. Judge Jean Hughes, who presides over Harris County Criminal Court at Law No. 15, said such cases are called "whales."

"It's better that they [prosecutors] try quality cases, rather than ones that shouldn't have been tried in the first place because that wastes jurors' time and costs money. It's not going to cause any big problems." -- Judge Jean Hughes
I don't know what part of Judge Hughes' statement bothers me most. It's a given that most cases tried, both in criminal and civil court, are the ones with the murkiest facts and biggest questions. Parties to cases with fairly clear-cut facts gain nothing by taking them to trial -- it makes sense, both in terms of money and in judicial efficiency, for those cases to be settled; whether by dismissal or plea bargain. In the criminal courthouse, that leaves us with the cases in the middle and the cases in which a citizen accused has nothing (or very little) to lose by pushing them to trial.

I also wonder what Judge Hughes' attitude would be if every citizen accused of a crime in her court demanded that their cases be tried before a jury. Just imagine the chaos that would ensue at the Harris County (In)justice Center if that were to happen.
"It's unethical. A prosecutor's job is to seek justice, not win easy cases." -- Mark Bennett, President, Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association
Of course a citizen accused of a crime who is not allowed to plead out her case could always plead guilty to the jury and argue punishment instead of guilt/not guilt (I refuse to call it guilt/innocence because there is no determination of innocence at trial).

There is also the little matter of how we learn through our experiences. We learn far more by failing and analyzing our mistakes than we do by being perfect. Winning a case doesn't teach you how to win another case; losing a case, however, gives you the opportunity to analyze what worked and what didn't so that you don't repeat your mistakes the next time you set foot in the well of the court.

And never forget what happened to Captain Ahab as a result of his obsession with a big whale.

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