On Last Week Tonight, John Oliver talked about the highly influential role of prosecutors play in court cases. “‘Prosecutors will decide’: It’s one of those three-word phrases that you hear so often you don’t even think about what it means anymore, like ‘User Agreement Update’ or ‘Some Restrictions Apply’ or ‘Tyler Perry Presents,'” the comedian joked.
Prosecutors provide a crucial – yet often harmful – element of the United States’ already-broken criminal justice system. Roughly 95 percent of cases prosecutors decide to prosecute end up with the defendant pleading guilty – “no ‘innocent until proven guilty,’ just a prosecutor striking a deal behind closed doors,” the host said. And that process helps a flawed legal system keep moving, while simultaneously leading to wrongful convictions.
Prosecutors also have a hold on evidence. They control case files like police reports, witness information and physical evidence. And while they’re required to hand over exculpatory evidence, they often do so at the very last minute – or, worse, conceal exculpatory evidence.
“You can’t just count on an adversary to voluntarily expose all of their weaknesses,” Oliver said. “In Star Wars, the rebels had to steal the Death Star plans. The Empire didn’t just email it to them with the subject line ‘FWD: GIGANTIC STUPID WEAK SPOT (VERY DUMB, GO TO TOWN).'”
There’s also little to no accountability for withholding evidence. The Veritas Initiative found in a March 2016 study that in “600 criminal cases where courts confirmed prosecutorial misconduct, only one prosecutor from those cases was disciplined.”
Oliver insisted that we need “permanent legislative fixes” – from requiring greater transparency from prosecutors about sharing evidence through so-called ‘open-file laws’ to ideally establishing independent commissions to investigate misconduct.” And given that DAs are typically elected – and roughly 85 percent run unopposed – it’s important to stay informed about who these people are.
“Can you honestly say with 100 percent certainty that your District Attorney is not a dog?” the comedian joked. “You probably can’t, and that’s kind of the problem here. Most people know as much about their local DA as they know about their local Cheesecake Factory manager. Chances are you don’t know who they are, and if you do, it’s probably because something truly terrible has happened. The truth is, like the Cheesecake Factory, prosecutors have the ability to ruin lives in a second, so we need to find out who our DAs are and get a sense of the policies and priorities that they’re carrying out where we live.”