John Oliver speaks to the problem of criminal prosecutors

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On the latest episode of Last Week Tonight, host John Oliver tackled the problem of the criminal justice and the prosecutors who nearly run the whole show.

The entire suite of issues contained within the criminal justice system — from police, to the courtroom, to prisons and jails — are just too much for a 20 minute segment. However, that’s just enough time to start examining some of the most overlooked people with some of the greatest power: prosecutors.

Prosecutors have a huge role in the process, generally determining what a defendant is charged with, or if someone will be charged at all.

“We tend not to think about that power very much,” said Oliver, “except when there’s a high powered controversy,” a la police brutality cases or early legal actions against Harvey Weinstein.

All of that power can be misused, even when a prosecutor has good intentions. Take plea bargaining, a widely used and frankly necessary part of the criminal justice system. If a defendant pleads guilty, they can strike a deal with prosecutors without ever going to a trial. This happens in a great majority of cases. Judges recognize that this is a necessary, if morally gray, part of the system. If every single case went to trial, it’s very possible that the court system would not be able to handle the load.

Why would defendants plead guilty if they are actually innocent? That’s thanks to something called a “trial penalty.” That’s when prosecutors promise that they will give someone a lighter deal if they plead guilty and avoid a trial. If a defendant refuses and the case goes to trial, then prosecutors can threaten heavier sentences.

Going to trial

What if you’re one of the five percent of people who go to trial anyway? How can prosecutors continue to put the pressure on you and your legal team? For one, they can build a jury that is friendly to their side of things, skirting around rules requiring them to ignore race, gender, and other major factors. Judges can allow lame explanations for dismissing jurors, as long as prosecutors’ justifications are ostensibly “race blind,” for example.

Also, case files can become mysteriously thicker before a trial. That makes it harder for a defendant’s lawyers to get through all the material and properly do their job once in court.

Sometimes, defense attorneys don’t even get exculpatory evidence that could exonerate their clients. Prosecutors can decide what evidence is relevant to a defense, making it very easy for them to withhold evidence.

Oh, did you think that this would be treated as a major crime? As it turns out, very few prosecutors who have held on to such evidence have faced any serious repercussions. A very small number have been given slap-on-the-wrist sentences, like a paltry 10 days in jail. That lack of accountability makes for a dangerous set of circumstances.

Take Harry Connick, Sr. who was the D.A. for New Orleans. Yes, he’s Harry Connick, Jr.’s dad. Connick, Sr. earned a reputation for becoming one of the most aggressive prosecutors in the system. It got to the point where he proudly displayed a miniature electric chair on his desk in honor of all the death sentences his office generated.

Exoneration

Nearly a quarter of the men sentenced to death in Connick’s district had their rulings overturned. Many found themselves off death row because of a lack of evidence. By the way, that tiny electric chair had pictures of real-life death row inmates. In the clip provided on Last Week Tonight, the five men whose faces are visible in the mini chair were all exonerated. That is itself a damning indictment of Connick’s work, as well as the motivations of him and his fellow prosecutors.

Or, take the case of Glenn Ford, an innocent man who still found himself on death row for three decades. Prosecutors declined to share exculpatory evidence that could have saved him. They also created an all-white jury that was arguably unfriendly to Ford, an African-American.

Said one of the prosecutors, A.M. “Marty” Stroud III: “I did something that was very, very bad.” And yet, none of the prosecutors involved in the case faced consequences for taking away 30 years of Ford’s life. The lead D.A. on the case said it was better than dying in prison or being executed. Yet, was it really all that much better? He remained “reasonably confident” that he was doing good in his role as a prosecutor, even though at least 10 people on death row in his district were later exonerated.

What to do

How can you effect change? District attorneys are elected officials, for one. Theoretically, you can vote them out of office if enough people agree with you. However, about 85 percent of prosecutors run unopposed. There has to be a district attorney, and with a significant number of candidates running unopposed, it’s little more than a cakewalk for them.

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Do you even know who your local D.A. is? Are you totally, 100% sure that they aren’t a dog? Chances are, you have about as much a chance of knowing who they are as you do the manager of your local Cheesecake Factory. You should at least take a few minutes to learn more about your D.A., for, according to Oliver, “like the Cheesecake Factory, prosecutors have the ability to ruin lives in a second.”