Sunday, October 4, 2009

One day, people will go to jail because of me.

...Well, more precisely, they’ll go to jail because they will have committed a crime, but one day I will be the person who prosecutes them and secures the conviction. It’s odd to think about this as I plow through (actually: procrastinate on) my evidence reading; it seems like such a distant future. But if my plan for my legal career goes anything like I hope it will, this future is not that far away. I’d like to think I’ll be facilitating justice, but tonight I was reminded that this may not always be the case.

This semester, my schedule is laden with litigation-focused classes. At the end of a small litigation seminar this evening, a few of us stayed behind to talk about a particular point of strategy: is it ever wise to have your defendant directly contradict something said earlier by a cop? The facts provided for our in-class mock trial are sparse, and leave lots of room for improvisation. In one instance, the police officer says that the defendant said something incriminating, and it is possible for the defendant to either deny it in his own courtroom testimony or admit to it but provide a reasonable explanation for why he said it. In other words, the question boiled down to this:

In a clash between Cop-Says and Defendant-Says, can the defendant ever win?

My thoughts on the matter were absolute. “No.” Between defendant and cop, there was no doubt in my mind that the cop has more credibility. If it can ever be avoided (as it could in this case), the defendant should not pit his word against the cops; it looks more credible to explain the incriminating statement in a way that diffuses it. Sure, not all cops are good cops, but the defendant is without question the most biased person in the whole courtroom. This seemed open-shut to me.

The professor and some of my classmates had a different take. “Cops lie,” they pointed out, and my professor reminded me of a number of unjustified shootings by police officers that took place recently in New York. Citizens are often more skeptical of the police than they are of an accused criminal. Acquittal rates are highest in boroughs like the Bronx, where much of the jury pool has likely been hassled by a cop without reason.

Of course, not all cops lie, and it’s not fair to generalize based on a few instances, but it was good for me to be reminded of the fact that a uniform and position of authority do not combine to make truth.

As we all filed out of the classroom, a classmate asked why conviction rates were still so high---well over 90%---in New York City. Before the professor could respond, one of my classmates quickly responded, “Because they’re all guilty, right?” It took us a second to realize he was being sarcastic, and we all started to chuckle. Then I suddenly became aware of the gravity of the statement. There is probably a low statistical likelihood that such a high rate of conviction is accurate. That probability does set up a funny law student comment, but it also implies that there are people sitting in jail right now---put there by people like me---who shouldn’t be there.

I stopped laughing.

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