Advocate Says Prosecutors Who Win All The Time Aren't Looking For Justice

Oct 24, 2017

Police have endured harsh public scrutiny over use of force cases, but prosecutors have also taken heat for choosing not to pursue cases when civilians are shot by police.

On this week’s episode of 90.5 WESA’s Criminal Injustice podcast, University of Pittsburgh law professor and host David Harris talks to David LaBahn, president and CEO of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, a national association representing elected and appointed prosecutors.

Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

DAVID HARRIS: What is the role of the prosecutor in the current criminal justice system?

DAVID LABAHN: The role of the prosecutor is to be the minister of justice; to do the right thing to the right person for the right reason; to make certain that this is the right individual for the crime; and in addition to that, make certain that this is a situation where the criminal justice system needs to bring that individual in, that that filing in that case will have a public safety benefit to the community.

HARRIS: So it's not just about winning every case?

LABAHN: It is absolutely not about winning. Back in my past life, when I was a real prosecutor handling cases, nobody wants the prosecutor that wins 100 percent of the cases. That's not somebody who's doing justice.

HARRIS: Is that role as you describe it so different than it used to be?

LABAHN: I've only been at this for 30 years, but yes, some things are old. Concepts like diversion and second chances and such, they were around 30 years ago. When you talk about the "tough on crime" eras, they were wiped out. Now here we are 30 years later doing the same thing we used to do. So some of it is old, but definitely the vision and the questioning about, "Is this the best place to handle whatever the problem is?" Because nothing comes to a prosecutor's office unless there's some sort of a problem or complaint out there. But, [to ask] are we the best to handle it?

HARRIS: One of the core fights among prosecutors has been about forensic testing standards, setting quantifiable scientific benchmarks that courts can trust and the public can trust. Another of these areas of argument has been in reaction to the public outcry over the deaths of civilians, sometimes unarmed black men at the hands of the police. And your organization, the APA, formed the Use of Force Project for that particular issue. What do you hope the Use of Force Project will accomplish in the end?

LABAHN: We hope that it will accomplish change. You know, we're here trying to help prosecutors work on making their communities safer and we hope that the guidelines that we published will be followed and that offices will be setting up procedures and protocols in advance of any sort of a critical incident in their community.

HARRIS: You argued in [your] use of force report for "responsible transparency." What the public is told needs to be balanced against the integrity of the investigation. Can you explain that?

LABAHN: I think you're leaving me with the question, it's exactly there. There are many times in an investigation, whether it's the investigatory agency or once it's handed to the prosecutorial agency, that they for convenience -- to make it easy, to calm the public -- feel like, "Boy I'd like to say this, or I would like to do that. I want to make an example of the shooting victim in the community." What we have argued for and laid out was that should always be balanced. Transparency is incredibly important. That's got to be one of the keys to doing it right with the independence, but it should always be responsible.

You can hear David Harris’ full conversation with former prosecutor David LaBahn on this week’s episode of WESA’s Criminal Injustice podcast. Subscribe on iTunes or through your favorite podcast app.