Reversing a conviction for rape this week, the Idaho Court of Appeals reminded all of us that the system works when the rules leveling the playing field are enforced. That applies to defense lawyers and prosecutors alike. As Judge Gutierrez noted: "While our system of criminal justice is adversarial in nature, and the prosecutor is expected to be diligent and leave no stone unturned, he is nevertheless expected and required to be fair."
So the case of State v. Troutman takes another turn down the road of justice. Noting that a "fair trial is not always a perfect trial," Judge Gutierrez finds that the error here interfered with the right to a fair trial and results in giving Mr. Troutman another day in court. If you are facing any criminal charge, you need to read this case. Go do it now.
The decision is a great reminder of the complexity of criminal trials, and it reminds me of the following THREE TRUTHS about the criminal justice system.
FIRST TRUTH – every lawyer in that trial has duties that he or she must oblige. Judge Gutierrez noted the prosecutor’s duties to the people of the state, including the duties to the defendant. Hard blows are fine in the courtroom, but they must be fair blows. Mischaracterization of the evidence or the defense theory is not permitted. And mischaracterization is so easy to do in the heat of the battle in the courtroom. We are advocates in there, fighting for our client, and the fight gets hot sometimes and it is largely unscripted. When I read something that I have written here and reflect that it goes too far or misses the mark, I simply correct and re-save. There are no "re-do" buttons in an argument before that jury, so remarks need to be carefully considered. But none of us – not the best lawyers I know (Nevin or Spence) nor the best prosecutors for the State or the United States (hard to choose here) – none of us – gets it right everytime. We make mistakes and we fight too hard. In closing arguments we get going a hundred miles an hour and turn facts into stone when really the world is far more mud than rock. I won’t cast stones at the prosecutor here, and neither did the Court, for I too have taken arguments at trial too far.
But the difference is critical – and the SECOND TRUTH – prosecutors have a higher duty than simply fighting the good fight.
"The role of the prosecutor is to present the government’s case earnestly and vigorously, using every legitimate means to bring about a conviction, but also to see that justice is done and that every criminal defendant is accorded a fair trial."
When I get it wrong in pursuit of an acquittal I may affect the outcome of the trial, but my duty rests solely with my client. The prosecutor must temper his or her role in the battle against a higher calling – to make sure every defendant has a fair day in court. Maybe this decision will cause prosecutors to stop and reflect on that duty as they go about their duties.
The THIRD TRUTH is that sometimes you need that review by another judge or higher court to save the day. As I said above, lawyers often get it wrong in the heat of the battle, and there is no immediate review as in a football game. We don’t go to the referee upstairs with instant replay for a quick review. Judges sometimes get it wrong too. Here the appellate court thought the trial judge failed to adequately protect the defendant’s rights. It happens. Thankfully the Court of Appeals was there to review the case and make it right.
So what does all this mean to you as a criminal defendant heading to trial? Get the best lawyer you can afford. Let your lawyer work hard to win your case. Trust him or her but remember – something will go wrong at trial. It always does. Hopefully your judge will catch it but maybe not. So be prepared to fight to the death to clear your name. And hope for one of those appellate miracles if that is all there is left to hope for.