What little I understood about a prosecutor’s job was from casually watching movies or the local news. My elusive starting point for “who is a prosecutor” was that he/she was a person who conducted a thorough investigation and after all the facts were examined, decided whether to charge someone with a crime. That wasn’t quite right, but close. The prosecutor made the case. The Grand Jury decides if someone was going to be charged.
The prosecutor was always presented as a very strong, all-knowing authority. Some of the feelings that I had about the prosecutor in my case, Mr. Williams, came from collecting the words and non-verbal vibes I got from the people that dealt with him. I tried to resist the fear-based relationships I witnessed.
The essence of the allegations in my case stemmed from the loss of investments. I thought I knew what had happened during my role on the Fund committee. I knew what I knew, so to speak. How did that stack up with what I was potentially going to get charged with? I knew I had been truthful with investors in administrating their paperwork and I knew that I didn’t benefit from anything other than my regular paycheck. The few investors I had were friends, family and me. How could I be charged with a crime regarding a Fund that some of the closest people in my life and I were invested in? To me, it didn’t compute.
Some facts and observations started to swell around me. I was told about what a famous NY Chief Judge said about prosecutors and I started to get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. In January 1985 Chief Judge Sol Wachtler said, “…district attorneys now have so much influence on grand juries that “by and large” they could get them to “indict a ham sandwich.” The Bureau of Justice Statistics states that “U.S. attorneys prosecuted 162,000 federal cases in 2010. Grand juries declined to return an indictment in 11 of them.” The deck felt stacked.
Rarely are prosecutors ever praised for declining to prosecute in the name of justice. That’s unfortunate because in my humble opinion, I believe, it is unlikely that 99.99%+ of the people charged were guilty. When people are charged with a crime and they are not guilty, it has far-reaching effects on their lives and those who know them.
The official purpose of a prosecutor is to serve justice. He/she doesn’t work for anyone. The prosecutor must use sound judgment at every step in the criminal justice process. That’s a lot of power. The nearly limitless resources of the Federal Government were available to the prosecutor. I was no match for that. It didn’t feel like a level playing field.
When a prosecutor takes a case to the Grand Jury there is an option for the Grand Jury to not indict. History and statistics say it is rare. Concurrently, the Grand Jury is expecting that the prosecutor presents all the important evidence after a thorough investigation. Typically, the prosecutor is the only one presenting information to the Grand Jury with an eye on ringing the bell for “beyond a reasonable doubt”. So, truly it is often a one-sided argument.
If the prosecutor “got it wrong”, the Grand Jury could correct the path during the investigation phase without a charge. It felt like this was the beginning of passing the baton from one part of the criminal justice process to the next. What one group may have made an error on, the next group had an opportunity to fix. Early on, I was falling through the cracks.
I got the sense that no one is held accountable for their responsibilities in this procession of justice. Mistakes can be overlooked or passed on assumably for others to rectify. It felt like a steam roller.
The words that kept rolling around in my head were – “with great power comes great responsibility”. I have never personally known anyone I considered to have great power. Until now. I saw squarely in my purview what real power looked like.
Power was not something that I had dealt with much personally or professionally. Power was something other people had and could choose to use it for good or evil. Power was being able to do what you wanted when you wanted with who you wanted and all the decisions and actions that aligned with the powerful decision-maker.
Right from the start, I was sure I had no power. Nothing I did was going to stop this prosecution- was more less the sentiment I had. Then, Dan, my attorney, asked me if I wanted to testify at the Grand Jury. He said that was rarely allowed. I wouldn’t be able to have Dan there to consult with because he wasn’t allowed to be there, but I could go tell the truth to the people that were going to decide if I would be charged with a crime. I didn’t have long to think about it, maybe a day. At the same time, I found out that Brent, my former colleague who was in the same boat, was going to testify at the Grand Jury. He was an attorney and he and I were on the same page, so I declined to go testify knowing that Brent would do a much better job than I would.
The opportunity to go to the Grand Jury gave me a spark of hope. Maybe they would listen. Maybe I would get a chance for others with the power to hear what I knew. I drank from that little cup of courage.
Generally, at this time my community was quiet and anxious. It was difficult and time-consuming to keep well-meaning people current on the legal news of the day. Every day was an event. Not knowing when my attorney would call and what the latest development would be. Together, we were painstakingly learning how our justice system worked and incorporating more and more legal-ease into our daily life. Watching the news and hearing about criminal cases became eerily relatable.
In my work community, few people knew that I was coming to work on pins and needles every day. In my home life, my kids were too young to have any idea why I was “different”. Kids just know, even if they can’t say it. I was doing the best I could to be normal. My husband, Steve, vacillated from mildly supportive to asking minute details from my work with the Fund seemingly conducting his own investigation. Steve was suffering and it seemed that this case could decide the fate of our relationship. Fear followed him around like a cloud he could not get out from under.
What does power look like to you and is that something you seek?