The answer seems obvious or at least it should. Moreover, “justice” and conviction of the guilty are supposed to go hand in hand.
However, there are those who argue that it is not a prosecutor’s job to seek the truth, nor is it the job of the defense lawyer. Most people understand that “justice” is about getting to the truth of the matter, so that the innocent are set free and the guilty are punished.
However, ours is an “adversarial system” of justice. The premise of the adversarial system is that the truth comes out from a process in which two adversaries, the prosecutor on one side, and the defense attorney on the other, argue their competing versions of the truth within the confines of constitutional law and the rules of ethics. A neutral third party (a judge or a jury) decides which side is right and rules accordingly.
The analogy one might use is that of the marketplace. Neither a buyer nor a seller seeks a “fair price.” Each side seeks to secure the best outcome, subject to the rules of law and fair play. The buyer seeks the lowest price he can get, while the seller seeks the highest. On the other hand, a buyer does not have a right to steal the seller’s product, nor does a seller have the right to willfully misrepresent what his product is. In other words, he cannot sell a ten- year old car by presenting it as a two-year old car. Similarly, an employer is subject to minimum wage laws and must take reasonable steps to insure a safe workplace.
Similarly, we do not allow our adversarial system of justice to be an anarchical free-for-all. Both sides are subject to the rules of ethics, and neither side is allowed to knowingly present false evidence. The prosecutor, like the police officer, has the duty to see that a defendant’s constitutional rights are protected. The problem is that there are times when prosecutors, like police officers, cross the line. In some instances, an overzealous prosecutor might seek to withhold exculpatory evidence, just as a police officer might tamper with evidence and justify it because they “know” that the accused is guilty. In some cases, they may be right, but because they knowingly break the rules, the goal of pursuing the truth is undermined because such conduct often leads to suppression of confessions and exclusion of evidence of guilt.
The case of former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens illustrates this problem as his conviction was thrown out because prosecutors withheld evidence from the defense and the court. In the Matt Davis murder trial, the Kansas City prosecutor went beyond withholding evidence. He actually lied to the court about what the evidence showed. At trial, Davis argued that when he found his dead girlfriend in his apartment, he attempted several times to call his attorney to find out what to do. The police records corroborated this claim, but the prosecutor, Dan Miller, not only withheld the police records from Davis’ defense team, he also argued to the court, that Davis never contacted anyone. Miller called Davis a liar when he knew Davis was telling the truth. We may never know if Davis or Stevens were guilty, so we are left with neither convictions nor justice.
The conclusion one must draw is that a prosecutor, as a public official and officer of the court, has an obligation to seek justice and truth. By taking legal, ethical and/or constitutional shortcuts for the sake of winning, his/her conviction rates might stay high in the short run, but will ultimately plummet and justice will be ill-served.