The job of a criminal defense lawyer is pretty straightforward: Make the best possible case for your client’s innocence, even if you know he is guilty. It’s a key component of an adversarial system that is meant to help check the power of the state by ensuring that government prosecutors prove their cases beyond a reasonable doubt.
A prosecutor’s job is more nuanced. While he must also make the best possible case – although for conviction – that holds true only within the context of administering justice. A defense lawyer can ethically argue for the acquittal of a client he believes to be guilty, but a prosecutor cannot seek a conviction against someone he believes may be innocent.
The good news for the residents of Erie County is that their acting district attorney, Michael J. Flaherty Jr., has promised to be aggressive in administering his office. It’s a description that was rarely applied to his predecessor, Frank A. Sedita III, now a judge.
The best that anyone can say about Sedita’s approach is that it was cautious. The worst is that it was timid to the point of letting suspected criminals go unprosecuted. The worst of these was the 2013 hit-and-run that left Barry T. Moss dead on the side of the road.
Evans police believed they knew who killed the 52-year-old handyman: Gabriele P. Ballowe, who later agreed to a confidential settlement of a civil lawsuit over the death. But Sedita was unconvinced that he had the evidence to secure a conviction, so no one has been called to account for the crime. Flaherty has ordered a review of the case. While he expressed admiration for Sedita, whom he called a friend, Flaherty said that under his administration, the District Attorney’s Office would “do better.”
That is what Erie County residents have needed to hear: that they have a chief prosecutor who will be aggressive in the pursuit of criminals. Unspoken in Flaherty’s declaration – but included in it, one hopes – is that he will be aggressive in pursuing not simply convictions, but justice. As Western New Yorkers have learned, they are different things.
Erie County, like many other counties in New York, has had a problem with wrongful convictions. They can occur for many reasons, but among them is overzealousness by police or prosecutors who are under pressure to identify and remove a threat to the public. Some take shortcuts or apply intense pressure to suspects to confess. In some cases, such as the Central Park Five – young men convicted of a brutal assault they did not commit in Manhattan – the results can be catastrophic.
Prosecutors perform a critical task in the criminal justice system. Not only do they need to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, but they are the gateway between the police and the courts. Deciding who gets through requires judgment that balances the need to hold people accountable for crimes they commit with the demands of justice. Here’s hoping Flaherty does a better job of finding that balance than his predecessor did.