Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A conversation with a state prosecutor around the Sangji case


MG is a family friend and an state prosecutor. He is not in any way associated with the #SheriSangji case, nor is he in the same geographical area as the Sangji case. I’ve supplied him with most of the details of the case and links to the relevant information.

As the Sangji case is quite technical (e.g. the charges are under California’s labor statutes, the chemistry involved, etc.), I’ve asked MG to focus less on the specific legal aspects of the case. Rather, I thought he might be able to help us try to understand the context around prosecutorial decision making and the impact of Naveen Sangji’s letter to Los Angeles County District Attorney Steven Cooley and his decision charge both UCLA and Professor Patrick Harran.

This e-mail exchange was lightly edited by CJ and checked by MG before publication.

CJ: How does a DA decide to charge a person or an institution with a crime, especially when it's not a "typical crime"?

MG: In charging an individual a prosecutor must consider the facts specific to the incident, the social harm by the crime, and whether or not the evidence exists to reasonably believe that the particular individual has committed the crime, and whether charging that person is warranted by an interest in justice. That means different things in different situations. I have often declined filing state charges on an individual because I believe the crime can be better handled through the applicable municipality.

I once had a police officer ask me to charge a girl with stealing about $10 worth of items from a local retailer. She was arrested for shoplifting. Upon reviewing the charge and the offender’s lack of any criminal history, I told the officer that I felt the individual should receive a municipal citation rather a state level criminal charge. The officer was not very happy with me. I could have easily charged the defendant. There was no question as to whether the evidence was sufficient.  She was caught on video surveillance. However the girl’s criminal history was clean. Certainly stealing any item of any value cannot be condoned but municipalities have the best infrastructure for handling these lesser offenses. But simply charging someone because you have the power is wrong. Frankly it’s a misunderstanding and abuse of the power a prosecutor holds.

Charging an organization is generally a completely different ball game from charging an individual.  Most organizations can be held accountable through civil liability, thus making these types of prosecutions rare.

CJ: How much does the desire of the victim's family play into the DA's decision?

MG: A DA should not charge based on emotion.
Most of the time the desires of families and victims are emotionally driven. Second is the category of victims that see the criminal justice system as a means to extolling personal retribution upon the offender.  This often happens in cases involving death, such as this case. This is understandable, but it can be a difficult issue for any prosecutor, but the prosecutor shouldn’t ignore it either. Sometimes the law, and what is ethical for a prosecutor, is not in-line with a victim’s goals. It’s a fine balancing act.

At the core a prosecutor must do what is right. It should not be dictated by political considerations. It should not be dictated by emotions. It must be dictated by a deeper reflection of what justice actually means in context to the facts of any particular crime, including consultations with the victims, the social harm of the particular crime, and the history and overall context of a particular offender, and any mitigating or aggravating factors.

CJ: Is Naveen Sangji's letter typical of victim letters in her evident love for her sister and desire for retribution?

MG: The letter is consistent with other letters I’ve seen from victims and families. Generally sentiments from victims, in my experience, fall into one of two extremes. First, are the instances where the victim doesn’t care about justice and insists that the prosecutor should drop the case. This often occurs in the context of domestic violence cases. There, victims often recant their stories and believe that their unwillingness to proceed is binding upon the prosecutor. These are difficult situations and the approach is influenced by the factors in the case.

I always tell victims two things. First, their input and candor is something I need, and something that plays a significant role in my considerations of any plea offer. Second, I stress that their desired resolution of the case is not a controlling factor in whether I pursue the case or not. I further stress to them that I somewhat understand where they are coming from because a few years ago, before law school, I was the victim of a violent crime. I understand a victim’s frustration. I always try to make my victims feel important because that was not always how I felt treated when I sat across from a prosecutor as a victim.

CJ: How much do political considerations play into a DA's decision to charge or not charge someone? There are questions that the election year may have something to do with this, but I can't imagine that this would make enough headlines to make it worthwhile.

MG: Frankly, I do not believe politics should be a consideration for any prosecutor. That doesn’t mean that I don’t believe that happens. It does, but it should not be a controlling factor.  I understand that elected DAs must swim in the pool of politics, but that does not mean that any prosecutor should allow political considerations to determine whether charges are filed. If a prosecutor believes a charge will hurt their political prospects then frankly they aren’t placing the idea of justice above their personal endeavors. It’s simply not right.

I think any prosecutor considering the political implications should remember the Duke Lacrosse scandal. That entire prosecution was based on political endeavors. That prosecutor gave at least 50 media interviews.  Ultimately that sitting District Attorney was disbarred. That should sober any prosecutor being guided by politics.

If a prosecutor is doing what’s right and truly seeking justice, I believe the political aspects will fall into place without comprising the ethics of the job. Our job is to see justice and sometimes justice isn’t politically expedient.

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