Sunday, September 26, 2010

 

The Spiritual Life of Prosecutors


On Friday, USA Today had a lengthy front-page article criticizing federal prosecutors. I will admit being alarmed at the headline, but the article itself was oddly full of broad condemnation and worry, and pretty short on details of what was wrong. Certainly, withholding Brady material is improper and wrong, but there are often issues there that go far beyond the prosecutor-- like the many instances where an agent never gave a prosecutor the exculpatory evidence in the first place.

Certainly, the problems highlighted by USA Today come from the enormous amount of discretion that federal prosecutors enjoy, combined with the facts that many of their crucial decisions are made out of the public eye and that their decisions profoundly affect peoples' lives. It is this same combination of factors which often make the spiritual lives of prosecutors unusually complex, if they choose to bring their religious values to work with them.

When I was a federal prosecutor, I was deeply challenged by some of the Bible's teachings. John 8, for one, in which the adultress is saved from a legal execution by Jesus's mercy. For another, the story of Caiaphus, who was in the prosecutor role at Christ's trial, and who let emotion take take him where he should not have gone. Christianity can be a hard religion for the rich or powerful. While prosecutors are not rich, they have extraordinary power over the lives of the accused (and, in a different way, victims of crime). Like riches, that power can draw prosecutors away from faith, because it can be so hard to reconcile either with the bedrock values of humility and mercy that comes with most faiths (including Christianity).

We need prosecutors; I don't want to live in a society that lacks them. While we count on them, though, we should be attentive to the position we place them in, and expect that their work will take a toll on other parts of their lives if they are properly engaged with the deeply troubling stories that underlie their work. It is nothing less than the constant management of tragedy, and the weight of that shapes the rest of those servants' souls.

Comments:
I know someone who wants to be one right now....
 
I love being a prosecutor - it's the best job I've ever had. It's also the most stressful job I've ever had - it's humbling to have someone else's future at least partially in your hands at the ripe old age of 28.

From my experience, I think the best things prosecutors (religious and non-religious alike) can remember are that it's never too late to change the disposition of a case and that the ONLY goal is the proper administration of justice. That's all you're after as a prosecutor, and that's the only thing that matters. If you're not after justice, if you're only after convictions at any cost, please go find another job, because the prosecutorial side of the criminal justice system has no use for you. If you're deep into a case and it's starting to look like the defendant didn't do it, for the love of God, don't be afraid to do the right thing. Nothing is gained by locking up innocent people.

That's not to say it's always easy. I've lost my fair share of sleep worrying about cases (thank God I have a patient and understanding wife), and I've had disagreements with others over how to proceed on a particular case. I'll bet if you ask other prosecutors, you'll hear similar stories. But as hard as the job is, it's also incredibly rewarding. I've loved it so far, and I want to keep doing this job as long as I possibly can.
 
My spirituality has been tested as a child abuse prosecutor. Seeing these crimes, up close and personal, on a day to day basis has changed not only my beliefs, but my approach to religion as well.
As for the challenges that come with being a prosecutor with regard to "doing the right thing", it has never been a problem for me. I'm not going to risk my career and reputation all for the sake of "conviction at all costs." you quickly find that there is always another criminal who is guilty and far worse to society that you can better spend your time convicting, and feel good about doing it.

And while I have met a handful of people who may fall into that category, it is a rare exception. I find that most prosecutors are like me in that regard.
 
Dallas ADA--

Very true, on both counts. I think people who aren't prosecutors find it hard to imagine the emotional cost of constantly dealing with such tragedy.
 
First, I'm on a boat. I haven't seen T-pain yet, though.

Second, my spirituality, such as it is, stresses honor and honesty in all dealings. I am bound by this creed willingly as a man of the troth, but others may be wayward and not know or understand the nature of their transgressions. I am called to shepherd the weak (ignorant) with my strength (knowledge). I am to secure peace and prosperity for my hearth and kin by upholding civil society. I preserve the unity and wholeness of that society by being entrusted with the power of official censure. It's a weighty yoke, but like Campbell, I love being a prosecutor. I don't see myself so much as having power over defendants. Rather, they cede authority to the state by virtue of their transgressions. I see myself as having power to shield good people from the harm bad people would do them.
 
Careful, Lane... your creed seems to assume that all those who are charged (or even investigated) are guilty. That is a very dangerous view.
 
10:06 - I agree that assuming all persons under charge or investigation is a dangerous view. However, I respectfully disagree with your reading of Lane's comment.

Check out the beginning of his post (after the T-pain part). He talks about "honor and honesty" in all dealings. I don't think that creed assumes that all persons under investigation or charge are guilty. That'd run counter to honor and honesty in his dealings with defendants. It's neither honorable nor honest to subject someone to the criminal justice system when you believe/know the person to be innocent. It's also not honorable or honest to assume that all such persons are guilty - the criminal justice system is run by humans, and we all know how imperfect humans, even the most well-meaning ones, are.

Lane - don't want you to think I'm presuming to speak for you. Just offering my interpretation of your comment.

10:06 - don't want you to think I'm throwing you under the bus.
 
Campbell has the right of it. If one is not guilty and prosecuted, the moral fault is with the system and me, not the person.
 
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