Sunday, November 23, 2008

NAACP Seminar: D.A Weighs Fairness Against Evidence And The Law

"If we cannot find the truth, then what is our hope of justice?"
Scott Jureau ("Presumed Innocent")

Assistant District Attorney Cecil Mills recites his favorite book, later turned into a popular movie about a popular legal scholar who, himself, was accused of murder. D.A. Mills is also Reverend Mills.. he's the pastor of the Friendship Baptist Church in Greeneville, Tennessee. He told a recent community awareness seminar sponsored by the Johnson City-Washington County chapter of the NAACP that it is impossible for him to prosecute a defendant, without first putting himself in their shoes:

I had a friend when I started prosecuting, who once told me 'you are part of the most powerful office in the state of Tennessee.' I had no idea of what he was talking about. Over the years, I have come to understand what he meant. The courts have determined this. He or she is answerable to no superior, has virtually unbridled descretion in determining whether to prosecute, and for what offense. No court may interfer with his discretion to prosecute. The formulation of this decision, he or she is answerable to no one. It is indeed, the most powerful office in Tennessee today. It's responsibilities are awesome. The potential for abuse is frightening. The court system may not interfere with the discretionary powers of the District Attorney General, in their control over criminal prosecutions. This power is deeply rooted in the common law, and is a vital part of our common law tradition."

"This discretion has its outer limits."

"For 20-something years, I've been walking into courts as a prosecutor. I did not want to be a prosecutor. Most of the law books in my library for for defense attorney books. I started off wanting to be the next F. Lee Bailey. Whenever I would go into legal libraries, clerks would always see that I was always going over to the books on defense attorneys. It is only by the Movements of God that I have ended up as a prosecutor."

"Most of the time when I walk into court, and I cover all of them, in the Third Judicial District, I participate in every kind of case. 90 per cent of all the cases I see, I start off not knowing a thing about them. Most of the time, the officers or some private citizen has gone and taken a warrant, and I know nothing about the situation or the person."

"You are not going to find many officers talking about racial profiling.. you'll probably need to leave that to the defense attorney (Tom Jesse)."

"In criminal court most of the time, the prosecutor in 90 per cent of the time, doesn't know anything about the case. He finds out when the case is called that, if he is experienced and learned on how to do it, if the person says, 'I am not guilty,' the judge will pass him down, and that's usually the first time the prosecutor is able to see exactly what he is dealing with. A police officer, a deputy, a private citizen who has taken out a warrant, without any consultation with a prosecutor. You have to make some quick judgements at the time. Is that warrant valid? Does it really seem to state the crime? Generally, the victim will be there, and the judge will ask you to talk to them during the first break of the court session, and that, many times, is the first time you have ever talked with anyone about that case. The more serious cases where charges are brought by warrant, and in those cases, the prosecutor has talked to some officer, some
detective. Those are not the majority of the cases. You have got to be prepared to make some quick decisions. How strong is this case? Is it something that should be settled right then and there at the first court session? Is it something that you should just drop? If not, is it something that can be worked out?"

"If you drop the case, somebody is going to be really mad. That prosecutor is not some machine.. they are human beings and you may feel differently, but that's what they are. There will always be someone that's ready to jump all over you if you drop that case, whether it's an officer or something who feels they have been victimized. You have to make some really quick decisions right there in court. In a preliminary hearing, you have to make some quick decisions on whether it should go on up to criminal court, or send the evidence to a grand jury and let average citizens decide whether I as a prosecutor, should pursue it."

"One of the safeguards of our justice system, is that defense attorney. Most prosecutors WANT a competant and excellent defense attorney on the other side. You may not hear that said in any other forum, but I will tell you right now, we usually WANT the defendant to be represented by the best defense attorney they can find. The reason for that is, it holds our feet to the fire as prosecutors. THey are better at showing us our weaknesses very early on in a case. More importantly, for us, if the defense attorney doesn't do his or her job, many times, we have to try that case all over again, and that's the last thing we want to do. Once the case is bound over, you may see a prosecutor who looks and sounds very knowledgeable about a case, when in reality, they may know very little about it. That's why sometimes you'll see charges in a case, and when it's indicted, you'll see somewhat different charges.. that prosecutor has had time to study those questions, reflect on them, and see exactly what is being alleged."

"You'll hear a lot about probable cause. My mentors taught me early on, it's more than just probable cause. At some point, to prove that person guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, that's going to be your challenge and if you can't do it and you see that up front there's no need of going any further with a certain case, then you have to let it go."

"I have people that come to me and want me to charge folk.. in fact, I have people who fuss at me every day for 20 years.. 'you ought to just charge 'em. Just charge 'em. At least, they'll have to get a defense attorney, and at least they'll have to go through a jury trial.. let 'em prove it. Even if you can't prove your case, just put them through it.' That is a great abuse of power."

"Fairness is an issue nobody agrees on. The Knoxville News-Sentinel interviewed me once and asked me 'what is the most difficult part of your job?' I said 'fairness,' because everybody thinks they know what 'fair' is. Until you get stuck in the position of trying to make decisions about being fair, you'll find that what is fair to one person, is never fair to another person. You can argue all day long 'round the clock, and you'll never be able to convince everybody what is fair and what is not."

"About racial profiling.. yes, it is there. And it even happened to me. A few weeks ago, I was stopped.. worn out.. didn't look like a preacher or a lawyer, much less an assistant D.A. Just preached a revival, and I sweat profusely.. that time, I had just pulled my shirt over what I was wearing. I was driving home on the last night of Revival, and I'm in a hurry to get home. And I'm stopped--I won't tell you where I was stopped, nor who stopped me, but I will say it's close to where you are right now (downtown Johnson City), and I wasn't going to have much argument about the reason I was stopped, because the last night of Revival, I'm tired and want to get home. But then.. I got the 'light treatment.' The lights were shined in my car, and I got scared to move. I made sure I didn't make what they call 'furtive' movements, didn't want anybody to misunderstand where my hands were going, so I left one hand on the top of the steering wheel and the other on the side.. I didn't move a muscle. I got the full 'light treatment.' We talked, but for about three to four minutes and when you're scared, your time gets messed up. I was scared to death, wondering if something more was going to happen, than what you are prepared for."

"In court, I'm pretty well liked by all the officers, but sometimes if I have to throw out charges, they'll say something like 'well aren't you going to let them give you a statement or something?' 'Don't you want us to get to the truth, the facts?' I say, 'nope.. they're not going to give a statement.' I tell them, 'you need to prove your case. You go out and study the motives, you study the codes, you make the decision on whether I should charge, then come to me with those fact. Prove your case.'"

"Yes, I belong to what some people call, the most powerful office in the state. But I am also reminded that you cannot abuse your discretion. Because if you abuse it in one case, you may find yourself in a case involving someone you know, in that other chair. And I want those close to me and even myself, to be treated the same."

"My mentor, the one who first taught me how to prosecute, once told me that you do not have to be mean to a defendant. I have always remembered that, and I have been jumped on by other prosecutors because I have called a defendant a 'gentleman' or a 'lady.' I thought the jury gave me credit that just because you're prosecuting someone and in some cases, it's a really bad situation, that I showed them respect. They made a mistake and even though they won't admit it, I have to show that the mistake was made. If I didn't have the proof, I shouldn't be prosecuting the case."