The Prosecutor’s B.S. Meter

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I love reading Scott Greenfield’s blog Simple Justice. He posted a good one the other day called “Another Prosecutor Loses Her Virginity,” about a former prosecutor, Rochelle Berliner, now a defense attorney, who just came to the realization that cops sometimes lie.

Her epiphany was published in Saturday’s New York Times, in an article headlined “Drug Suspect Turns Tables on NYPD With Videotape.” A pair of defendants had actual video evidence that the cops had totally fabricated the entire basis for their arrest, and they gave the video to Rochelle.

”I almost threw up,” she said. ”Because I must’ve prosecuted 1,500, 2,000 drug cases … and all felonies. And I think back, Oh my God, I believed everything everyone told me. Maybe a handful of times did something not sound right to me. I don’t mean to sound overly dramatic but I was like, sick.”

Scott has a typical defender’s take on this.

What is disturbing about Berliner’s exclamation is not that she spent 14 years prosecuting people without having realized that maybe, just maybe, her cops weren’t perfect. That’s to be expected of career prosecutors, who often spend their entire careers with their heads deeply embedded in the cops’ derrière. It tends to give one a poor view of reality. It’s that she spent four years since leaving Special Narcotics as a defense lawyer and yet, not until now, was aware of the fact that cops, sometimes, fabricate crimes out of whole cloth. That’s four years of defendants represented by someone who was certain that they wouldn’t have been arrested if they weren’t guilty.

. . .

Rochelle Berliner now knows better. Welcome to the ranks of criminal defense lawyer, where we don’t have all the answers but we do know that the prosecution doesn’t either. You’re lucky that you’ve joined in the age of pervasive video, or you still wouldn’t believe this possible. Imagine how many times before the age of video Dominican immigrants like the Colon brothers were convicted for crimes that never happened, with someone like you feeling awfully good about it. I can understand why this would make you sick.

So congratulations on losing your virginity. I hope it didn’t hurt too much. I’m sure it didn’t feel very good for Jose and Maximo Colon, and I hope Police Officer Henry Tavarez loses his soon.

We didn’t want to comment on this, at first, because it so happens that we worked with Rochelle for a few years in Special Narcotics, and we knew and liked her. And frankly, she is well-equipped to defend her own self if she so desires.

But Scott’s piece, and a couple of the comments posted to it, kept nagging at us. There are some things we think really ought to be said here. So here’s our two cents’ worth:

First of all, a quick and unnecessary defense of Rochelle. We’ve known a whole array of prosecutors in our time, and Rochelle was one of the good ones. There certainly are prosecutors out there who are so misguided as to believe that their job — we kid you not — is to fight to convict anyone the cops bring in. We once walked out of an interview (with Dade County) where that exact philosophy was espoused. And there are plenty others who just put in their time to do a workmanlike job, without pushing themselves too hard one way or the other. But there are a significant number who truly believe their job is to achieve a just outcome, taking everything into consideration. Rochelle always struck us as being one of the latter.

And yet her bullshit meter seems not to have been working properly for nearly 18 years. What gives?

Speaking for ourselves, we like to think our own B.S. meter was working just fine — at least a lot of the time. We pissed off a lot of cops in our day. And there are some ex-cops who probably still rue the day that they lied to us. But there’s no way our B.S. meter was on all the time. It’s impossible.

We worked with a lot of the same detectives, over and over. You get to know the teams pretty well. They’re almost friends, some of them. You learn which ones are straight arrows, which ones are clowns, which ones are unscrupulous or lazy, and which ones are just along for the ride. You learn that most of them are happily gaming the system to make as much overtime as possible. You also learn that most of them couldn’t care less whether someone gets convicted after the arrest is written up. And hopefully you’re able to listen to each individual with the appropriate level of disbelief.

But when you’ve worked with someone for a while, and gotten to know them, it’s natural to let your guard down. How skeptical are you likely to be of someone who’s been pretty straight with you for as long as you’ve known them? And even if you do retain some skepticism, so what? There has to be a reason to suspect that the facts are not what you’re being told, and most of the time there’s no reason to do so.

Part of this is the randomness of real life. Maybe there’s a little detail that’s not right — or perhaps too right. But that’s life. The truth is rarely ideal. So it’s not easy to tell when any particular glitch in the matrix is a clue to something more sinister.

Part of this is the sheer routineness of drug cases. There are only so many ways these crimes happen, and the facts don’t vary too much from case to case. When the story you just heard happens to fit the pattern of the past thousand cases you’ve handled, it would be strange to be skeptical.

So even with a fully-functioning B.S. meter, there’s no way you’re going to catch everything. You just do the best you can.

The irony is that, the longer one serves, even as one’s knowledge of street reality grows from rookie ignorance to near-expert mastery, one’s ability to sense bullshit decreases dramatically, for all the reasons just mentioned. You’ve known the cops forever, you’ve handled this same kind of case countless times before, and the story just rings true.

This is where we defense attorneys have an obligation.

I’ll give my defender readers a moment to recover. Yes, I actually suggested that we are obliged to do something here.

You okay? Good. Yes, we defense attorneys have an absolute duty to ensure that prosecutors are given all the tools necessary to flush out the bullshit. This isn’t burden-shifting, it’s an imperative of our role.

For street crimes, the only facts an ADA or AUSA has in any given case are those provided by the cops or agents involved. If those facts fit together, there is no reason to believe the truth is otherwise.

It is so rare as to be remarkable for a defense attorney to come to a prosecutor with new facts, or a new way of looking at the facts. But most of the time, whenever it happened to us or we’ve done it ourselves, it was most assuredly worth it.

In any given case, the prosecutor has already made up his or her mind about guilt, innocence, and the appropriate plea, based on the facts provided by the cops. No amount of whining or cajoling or begging is going to change their mind. And yet that is precisely the idiotic strategy used by so many defenders out there. The only way to change someone’s conclusions is to present new facts that change the conclusion.

This isn’t burden-shifting, it’s a defender’s duty. Our job is to protect our clients, period. If the prosecutor is holding all the cards, and is going to make the biggest decision of our client’s life, we need to do what we can to make sure the right decision is made. We have an obligation to extract from our (yes, probably unwilling) client and other witnesses the facts that will make a difference.

And you know what? When a defense attorney came to us with new facts, or a new way of looking at them, we listened. We didn’t listen to the whiners, but we did listen to those who truly advocated, who had something we needed to hear. And more often than not, at least in our experience, such advocacy resulted in a dramatically improved outcome for the defendant. We were known to even dismiss indictments, if the new facts warranted.

* * * * *

We can’t end this without revealing a dirty secret, however. Prosecutors are only human, after all, and even the best are subject to incentives that reduce the likelihood that their bullshit meter is on full power.

Some people just want to be liked, and so they go along with whatever the cops tell them. These people are patsies and pushovers, and tend not to last long as prosecutors.

Some people befriend the cops, and so become not the advocates of the People, but of the officers. They go to bat for their cops — and yes, “their” cops is how they’d phrase it — even against the cops’ own supervisors. Friendship and loyalty are powerful human traits, and it’s the exceptional person who can act in spite of, rather than in keeping with, such emotional forces.

And some people are ambitious. A prosecutor without ambition is something of an oddity, and one is never quite sure about them. Ambitious prosecutors want good cases. They want big cases. They want that one case that makes them feel like they’re actually making a difference, and not just holding back the tide with a teaspoon.

Well, the big cases don’t just land in your lap. They are brought to you. And they are brought to you by the cops. And the cops won’t bring them to you unless they like you, feel like they can work with you, and trust you do prosecute the case the way they’d want it to be prosecuted.

Are the cops going to bring their big cases and investigations to the ADA who’s always giving them a hard time? The ADA who busts their balls over every little glitch? The ADA who doesn’t go to bat for that RDO overtime once in a while? Hardly.

So this is a real, albeit unspoken incentive. (Actually, it’s not unspoken. We were told this plainly and clearly by multiple prosecutors and cops during our time with Special Narcotics. Sometimes as a warning of what to watch out for, but also sometimes as instructions on how to act if we wanted to start getting those juicy investigations.)

So an ambitious prosecutor has an incentive to act in such a way as to increase the chances of bagging the big cases. Does that mean such prosecutors are necessarily turning off their B.S. meters? That they’re consciously avoiding knowledge of the truth, or knowingly deciding not to challenge the story they’re getting. No, not at all.

It’s not a conscious process. It’s a perfectly human, unconscious thing. The decision is probably not passing through the frontal lobes. It just happens that way.

* * * * *

So there are all kinds of reasons — some justifiable, some not — for prosecutors to believe tales told by cops that may not be exactly truthful.

Knowing this to be the case, what should we defense attorneys do about it? Should we throw up our hands and bemoan the injustice of it all? That wouldn’t accomplish anything. Should we fight to change the system, so that it minimizes the inevitable injustices occasioned by its administration by human beings? Of course, and that’s been the role of our jurisprudence since Magna Carta, but it’s hardly useful on a case-by-case basis.

What we need to do is acknowledge that this is a phenomenon that occurs. That there are reasons why it occurs. And then take the necessary action on our own part to minimize the injustice. If we have facts that the prosecutor ought to know, then share them! Better to persuade one lawyer now than to hold on to the facts and seek to persuade twelve random jurors a year from now. If we have a perspective about what the facts mean, then persuade the prosecutor. Don’t whine or plead, just make a rational argument from shared principles. It works often enough.

And if push comes to shove, and you have a fight on your hands, then goddammit fight. But don’t just complain that the system is unfair.

Good defense attorneys like Scott Greenfield get this. Good prosecutors get it, too.

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