Growing up as an attorney’s daughter, I thought I understood the relationship between prosecutors and defense attorneys. Since I was young, I had aspirations of becoming the best prosecutor that ever walked into a courtroom. I believed my role as a prosecutor would be to despise the defense attorneys and the men and women who they represented. This idea is prominent in countless movies, television shows, and is even evident in the attitudes of some of our well-known celebrity attorneys. Now looking back, many years later, with a change of heart, I have finally come to see that prosecutors and defense attorneys do not have to fight like cats and dogs. I have learned, most importantly, that this stereotype only gets in the way of finding the truth and serving justice.
As a law student, I have attended presentations from both the District Attorney’s Office and the Public Defender’s office, I have spoken with friends gaining experience from different externships, and spoken to practicing attorneys regarding this issue.
Today, law students are constantly being taught that in the criminal justice system there is an unavoidable reality of “us against them.
This way of thinking seems, to me, to be very problematic. When a case is being tried, the attorneys in the courtroom should not be worried about this idea of “us against them” or competing to win. The most important issue is making sure that the clients, represented by both the prosecution and the defense, are not being denied their constitutional right of a fair trial. This point may seem very obvious to the general public; however, unfair trials are, unfortunately, more common than many in the criminal justice system would like to admit. Conviction rates, reputations, and egos are an astounding reality in the courtroom. This reality should not get in the way of arriving at the truth.
I have, in the past, been guilty of believing that the prosecution and defense do not and should not get along. I believed that DAs and PDs were on different sides for a reason, until this summer. I have helped an innocent woman, Susan Mellen, who was wrongfully convicted 17 years ago, get closer to freedom than she ever has before. Although it is never easy to admit that such an unfathomable mistake has been made, like in this case, justice cannot be served until such mistakes are acknowledged.
When wrongful conviction cases surface, especially ones like Susan’s which involve factual innocence, attorneys need to realize it is not about conviction rates or popularity, but about an innocent person who has spent over a decade in prison for something she did not do.
Countless hours have been spent investigating, interviewing, and collecting evidence in order to help prove that Suzy is innocent. As odd as it may seem, Innocence Matters has worked collaboratively with the District Attorney’s office on this case since day one. The relationship between Innocence Matters and the assigned DA has evolved into a productive partnership and has revealed that DAs and defense attorneys can and should get along. There has been an unexpected willingness to examine the mistakes made in Susan’s case.
The cooperation between Innocence Matters and the DAs office on this case allows Susan, a woman who has waited 17 years too long for her freedom, to quicken the final steps toward her long-awaited exoneration.
Promising changes are already in the making in many jurisdictions. The Innocence Project has pushed for criminal justice reform commissions, which are starting to form throughout the country, in eleven states and counting. These commissions are investigating the changes that should and must be made in the criminal justice system to avoid the wrongful convictions which plague this country. Reform commissions such as these can help prevent wrongful convictions by advocating for changes in the system, by drawing attention to an issue that many believe is simply nonexistent, and by examining the causes of wrongful convictions. The best possible prescription for wrongful convictions is awareness and reform.
It seems that the cooperation I have witnessed has been one of the strongest forces moving this case forward to its final days. In this case, two great and passionate attorneys have come together, even when they were expected to butt heads, to reverse a tremendous mistake that has impacted an innocent woman’s life in unimaginable ways. When reputations and egos are put aside and when attorneys are able to work together to find the truth, I am realizing the possibility for great change is endless. Is this something that future cases can expect or is this simply a one-time event? Let’s hope, for future innocence cases, that the expectation will be a collaboration between both offices! For Susan, though, the end of the fight to be right is in sight!