Prosecutors: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)



criminal justice the process by which you are arrested charged and eventually go before a jury who render their verdict we find the defendant Robert Brooks not guilty we find Randall Bailey guilty we find the defendant not guilty have you reached the wording guilty or not guilty that is just objectively charming although all these years later I still can't believe those penguins wrongfully convicted the Central Park five now whenever whenever we talk whenever we talk about criminal justice reform we tend to just talk about policing public defenders judges and prisons and skip over a crucial element there prosecutors the attorneys who work for the federal state and local government and bring cases to trial there are roughly 2,500 DA's offices all around the country and they have a surprising amount of influence at almost every single stage of the criminal justice system because prosecutors decide whether you get charged and what you get charged with and therefore heavily influenced what kind of sentence you could face and you you sort of know deep down how important they are because of a little phrase that crops up constantly in local news crime stories ultimately it'll be prosecutors who decide whether charges will be filed prosecutors will decide whether to file criminal charges prosecutors will decide what happens next prosecutors will decide exactly prosecutors will decide it's one of those three word phrases that you hear so often you don't even think about what it means anymore like User Agreement update or some restrictions apply or Tyler Perry presents you know at this point I'm just going to assume that he presents everything it's safer that way I technically think he presents this show I wouldn't be completely surprised about that I look we tend not to think about that power very much except when there is a high-profile controversy concerning prosecutors failure to exercise it as has happened in numerous police shootings of unarmed black men or when Manhattan da saw Vance declined to prosecute Harvey Weinstein in 2015 citing insufficient evidence despite police officials insisting that they had plenty of evidence including Exhibit A his face but but it but it is worth talking about what happens when prosecutors do decide to exercise that power because while many try to do their jobs honorably that power can be misused or amplified the inequities inherent in the system and let's start with a truly incredible fact here the vast majority of the time your fate is not decided by a judge or a jury of your peers because nearly 95 percent of the cases prosecutors decide to bring end up with the defendant pleading guilty now what that means is no trial no innocent until proven guilty just a prosecutor striking a deal behind closed doors and many judges are resigned to that fact because at least plea bargains keep the system moving the system would collapse if every case that was filed in the criminal justice system were to be set for trial the system would just entirely collapse exactly it's an inadequate system that only functions if people constantly give up it's built on the exact same model as AT&T x' customer service hotline that's right AT&T new owners of HBO longtime owners of an unforgivably dog customer service hotline if somebody pleads guilty they they must have done it that's not necessarily the case in Houston testing of samples in drug cases have exonerated 133 people since 2014 and those people had pled guilty in every single case which is messed up the only people who should be claiming to have used drugs when they happen to awkward teenagers at high school parties oh I'm totally a wieder I'm into all the weeds I'm stoning right now that's how potted I am so so why do innocent people plead guilty what prosecutors will often offer a deal while threatening that if you go to trial they will stack charges against you and pursue a much harsher sentence it's something commonly referred to as a trial penalty just listen to Rodney Roberts he was accused of a sexual assault the DNA evidence later proved he did not commit and I'll let him explain what he took a deal when I finally got to the court this attorney he came in and told me that the prosecutor office had a plea agreement from it and like plea agreement even do it you know I pled not guilty I'm innocent he was like this urgent he was this pressure and he was like if you don't take this deal the only offer your two years you're home in two years and if not you know they're gonna take it off to trial and a judge is ready to give you a life sentence if you get found guilty and I think you're gonna get found guilty and this is my attorney telling me it's the one person I had to dead out me so I thought that to get home to my son they're my family and established in my life that the best thing I could do for myself was to plead guilty and fight it once I got home and as crazy as it sounds to hear that it kind of makes sense two years in prison is terrible but a life sentence is absolutely terrifying the only way that makes sense were defendant to risk that is if they're a gerbil because two years in life are basically the same thing to those litters but but but let's say you are one of the five percent of people who risk going to trial prosecutors still have lots of ways to try and gain an advantage for instance prosecutors are not allowed to discriminate by race during jury selection and if it's suspected that they are the Supreme Court has said that they could be required to provide race neutral explanations for striking tours which sounds like a good rule but it has been laughably easy for them to get around because judges will accept just about any reason in Texas a training document for prosecutors even conveniently listed examples of race-neutral reasons that judges had accepted including having a 1970s hairdo being a very pretty girl who might be attracted to the defendant or the defense counsel wearing a Malcolm X hat agreeing with the OJ Simpson verdict being a male wearing earrings in both ears and my personal favorites for wearing a bad boys club jacket pink hat and snakeskin belts which is just insulting because that look does not make you untrustworthy it makes you awesome I like the way I look at guarantee perhaps the area where prosecutors can exert the most influence concerns evidence because they control the case files things like police reports witness information and physical evidence and while they are required to hand over anything that is exculpatory or that might be useful in your defense in some states including New York they can do that at the very last minute something incredible happens on the day of trial certainly a case file that for a year was this thick suddenly now becomes this thick and so in our most serious cases in the cases where we have climbed to are looking at incredible amounts of potential jail time even life in jail this is what we are given when DA's answer ready for trial and the reality is is that in Manhattan too often it is trial by ambush it's true and they can then have to argue a case without having read all the important material it's basically a much higher stakes version of a kid giving a presentation in English class without having read the book in conclusion whether Heights the heights are watering but by the end the heights rather much more than they weathered at the beginning of the book thank you for your time just a quick but important message for English teachers no one has ever read a single book you have ever assigned it has never happened not once and look sometimes defense attorneys may not be given exculpatory evidence at all in fact among exoneration cases around 1/4 of them involve prosecutors concealing its culprit ory evidence and that is because prosecutors typically get to decide whether something is relevant to the defense which seems inherently flawed you can't just count on an adversary to voluntarily expose all of their weaknesses in Star Wars the rebels had to steal the Death Star plans the Empire didn't just email it to them with a subject line for word gigantic stupid weak spot parentheses very dumb go to town and when prosecutors do withhold evidence there is very little accountability for them take Michael Morton like in 1987 he was wrongfully convicted of his wife's murder after the prosecutor in that case withheld crucial pieces of exculpatory evidence now the good news is that prosecutor Ken Anderson was held to account for that misconduct the bad news is there was a slight discrepancy between the two men's sentences Morton served nearly 25 years in prison 8900 95 days and now the sentence for the prosecutor just 10 days in jail for contempt of court 10 days and he served less than half that although before you get too mad he did also have to pay a $500 fine which which isn't really the penalty you'd expect for wiping out 25 years of someone's life it's close to what you'd expect for a cantaloupe at Whole Foods 10 days for the public indecency $500 for the cantaloupe and to make it to make it even worse Anderson is actually the only prosecutor to ever serve any time for misconduct resulting in a wrongful conviction ever because the truth is prosecutors rarely face any sort of consequences for misconduct state bars are supposed to hold them accountable but a study of five states found that in 660 cases where courts had confirmed prosecutorial misconduct the number of prosecutors disciplined in those cases was one and that lack of accountability can fuel a dangerous culture where winds are already prioritized to a disturbing degree in fact in one DA's office in Colorado prosecutors were paid bonuses for achieving a high conviction rate and in Texas a DA rewarded convictions in misdemeanor cases with a prize that they called the trial dog award and let me just say as the proud proud owner of nine trial dogs my award goes to this one please don't die please please don't die I can't how important it is for you to hang in there and and and there was there was the notoriously aggressive office also of New Orleans DA Harry Connick senior who is yes Harry Connick Jr's dad in fact here they are on Harry jr. short-lived talk show singing a weirdly inappropriate Joette just well the [Applause] Harry's wild about me the heavenly places of his kisses yeah now if you didn't see any problem with that he's just a fun experiment for you to try at home call your own father right now tell him that the heavenly bliss is of his kisses fill you with ecstasy and just see how that goes my prediction is your next fishing trip is going to be extra quiet but during his time as New Orleans da lots of people were wild about Harry Connick senior because his office was famously ruthless Harry Connick was tough on crime he was very aggressive and he wanted to block him all up forever conics lead prosecutor was Jim Williams Jim took great pride in his numerous death penalty convictions he even kept a miniature electric chair on his desk Jim was regarded as one of the most aggressive prosecutors in the District Attorney's Office he described sliding up behind defendants in the courtroom and buzzing in their ears to mimic the the buzz of electricity holy that is just not okay although there was also literally no scenario in which sliding up behind someone in saying buzz in their ear is acceptable not even if you are Neil Armstrong on the moon and you need to get Buzz Aldrin's attention hey buzz buzz buzz buzz we're on the moon buzz buzz buzz buzz are you mad I was first buzz buzz but but that office is win at all costs culture resulted in some serious mistakes as it turns out fully a quarter of the men sentenced to death during conics tenure had their convictions overturned because of improperly withheld evidence and remember that little electric chair when the prosecutors had on his desk here's a fun fact in the photo of Jim Williams with the electric chair of the five faces visible all of them were released from death row yep the thing he kept as a token of his success is now a monument to poor decision-making it is the prosecutorial equivalent of Cuba Gooding jr. zaask er and look if you want to see why did that joke upset you more than anything else tonight you have got to be consistent you've got to be you might care about Cuba you care about him too much in this context and look if you want to see all the problems that I've described tonight in action just take a look at the case of Glen Ford who was on death row for 30 years after being wrongfully convicted now the prosecutor on his case Marty Stroud says that he got caught up in an aggressive hard-charging culture and admits to among other things deliberately excluding African American jurors and overlooking evidence that would have cleared Glen Ford and what happened clearly still haunts him I ended up without anybody else's help putting a man on death row who didn't belong there I mean at the end of the day beginning in middle whatever you want to call it I did something that was very very bad yeah it was it was very very very bad in fact the problem is that while he is clearly remorseful in terms of accountability there were no professional sanctions for his actions in fact the acting da after Ford was released Dale Cox doesn't even believe that Stroud should have apologized did mr. Ford get justice in this case I think he has gotten delayed justice the system did not fail mr. Ford it did not it did not in fact the system you see that because he's not on death row and that's how I can say it getting out of prison after 30 years is justice well it's better than dying there and it's better than being executed yeah I guess that's true but listen to how low he's setting the bar they're better than being executed or dying in prison by that measure anything succeeds Taco Bell better than being executed or dying in prison although when you think about it is it is it definitely between 2010 and 2014 that man's office was responsible for sending more prisoners to death row than anywhere else in the country and if you think the Glen Ford debacle may have made him more cautious you would be wrong I think society should be employing the death penalty more rather than less but there have been ten other inmates on death row in Louisiana who have been exonerated clearly the system is not flawless are you sure that you've gotten a right all the time I'm reasonably confident that that I've gotten it right oh you're reasonably confident are you that does not seem like it should be the standard to send someone to death row I was reasonably confident I could pull off bangs I was wrong about that and if someone's life depended on it I might have given it a little more thought and look at this point you may well be wondering how can we fix some of what we've seen tonight well clearly permanent legislative fixes are badly needed from requiring greater transparency from prosecutors about sharing evidence through so-called open file laws to ideally establishing independent commissions to investigate misconduct but depending on where you live there may actually be a more direct way for you to effect change because DA's are usually elected it's something you might sometimes forget until you see aggressive campaign attack ads like this one which ends in a bizarre turn of phrase this is how many child molesters the Calcasieu Parish do he has prosecuted as lead counsel how many murders how many rapes Roberts meanwhile our sheriff reports crime is on the rise and Calcasieu Parish Steve Street for District Attorney he'll try harder and a lot more but he would try a harder and a lot more often that's a pretty weak promise Steve the was your opponent's Logan Nathan Hamilton justice on Mondays and Wednesdays unless something comes up well it seems like it's gonna be a whole thing look the facts prosecutors are elected means that you can change them the problem is around 85% of prosecutors actually run unopposed in both primary and general elections it's gotten so bad that in one County in Washington state their prosecutor had run for ten terms without any opposition so four years ago in frustration someone ran ran their dog against him I know I know what you're thinking I'll great another white dog prosecutor and I'm not saying you're wrong but let's go one step at a time here look clearly we need more reform-minded DA's to run because thanks to the extreme breadth of power they have that could actually be a backdoor way to effect change on a whole host of issues from fail to the misuse of forensic science to the enforcement of marijuana laws and maybe you are one of the lucky ones here maybe your local DA is great or maybe they're a win obsessed asshole whose heavenly Bliss's of their kisses fill their adults songs with ecstasy or maybe a live in Washington State over the past four years your district attorney has been this dog and you didn't even realize it because can you honestly say with a hundred percent certainty that your district attorney is not a dog you probably can't and that's kind of the problem here most people know as much about their local DA as they know about their local Cheesecake Factory manager chances are you don't know who they are and if you do it's probably because something truly terrible has happened but the truth is like the Cheesecake Factory prosecutors have the ability to ruin lives in a second so so we need to find out who our DA's are and get a sense of the policies and priorities that they're carrying out where we live because if we do not decide ourselves what we want the criminal justice system to look like deep down you know who will exactly they will

20 thoughts on “Prosecutors: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)

  1. 16:13 Great, now his defence is the same thing that science uses to prosecute, only completely wrong no matter the personally believed truth behind his statement.

  2. 7:45 man, as an English major who sailed through most of high school like that, I now realize that I'd make a great lawyer for more reasons than just I good with words at.

  3. Many states and counties do not openly provide in depth reporting on the cases they prosecute or don't, it's almost entirely behind closed doors. Investigative reporting like this piece are important and valuable, but they are based on a huge amount of research and one-on-one interviews that is time-consuming and expensive. States and localities need to be far more open about what they do (taking privacy considerations into account of course), before any real change can happen.

  4. My partner is a public defender. It is an ugly unspoken rule that if you don’t agree to gratefully take a plea and insist on going to trial and you are found guilty, they will hit you with the maximum. My partner tried to explain it to a client who was arrested with two other women for—get this—having the ingredients to make meth (look beneath your kitchen sink; you probably do too). The other two women were locals with records who knew how to play the game. They rolled over on the third and said that she had recruited them for the purpose of making meth…and walked. The third woman had a clean record and insisted on going to trial.

    My partner stayed on the ADA and he finally agreed to a class C felony, six months in jail. She refused. In principle I really admired her, but I dreaded the outcome.

    Ten years in jail. For household products…and with not even a traffic ticket on her record.

    I know this sounds awful, but if you’re ever in that situation…take the fucking plea.

  5. well, if you sent knowingly innocent person to death, then you commit a murder, and you should be trialed for that. How wrong/untrue would be to say "justice system in US is run by mass murderers"

  6. Time 15 mins or so, 30 years in jail, better than being executed? Can't help thinking of Streisand's similarly absurd comment that MJ's abuse didn't kill the two victims in the recent documentary. You could say the same of most rapes.

  7. That is terrible that the prosecutor can withhold disclosure till the last moment. Trial by ambush, as they said. Should not happen.

  8. dale cox at 14:52 is the epitome of the attitude that so many people in law enforcement, military, government have that says we must "support our troops" no matter what even if they do something bad. That attitude comes from the idea that it's a hard job to make important decisions, and that we should see the people who have to make these decisions as human and forgive them for their mistakes. But instead they guard and defend them from receiving any criticism at all.

  9. Prosecutors are the absolute worst public servants in America and some of the worst people in america. These cocksuckers will tell you with a straight face they don’t care if someone isn’t guilty, because it’s an adversarial system and sometimes the guilty go free so it evens out. How is conspiring to take an innocent persons freedom, the very thing that we as Americans claim to hold above everything else, not considered the most heinous crime next to murder?

  10. Very surprised to hear about prosecutors withholding the majority of the file until the last day before trial. I'm shocked that at the very least, this wouldn't be grounds to adjourn the trial to a later date so that the defence has time to prepare.

  11. Cops and judges are kidnapping and pimping our children and suppressing it from the media. They are pedophiles that use feminism and free porn to sell our children

  12. I feel that the DAs are guys who failed at the Bar; they're just doing any white-collar job that they can get. They're junk.

  13. Prosecutors are basically that one lazy ass school janitor who wants to end his shift as quick as possible so he just shoves all the rubbish he sweeps into a student's locker. Except those rubbish contain explosives, and they're going to take someone's life.

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