FORUM

Criticism of State's Attorney Unjustified

There is an old cliche that when it rains, it pours. It has really being pouring on Jack B. Johnson, the state's attorney for Prince George's County, lately.

The media seem to have gone into a feeding frenzy, especially in connection with the horrible homicide in Laurel in which three young African American men were charged with causing the death of a Hispanic immigrant.

The last of the three charged was acquitted, and once again, The Washington Post seems to have accused Jack Johnson of "throwing the case" in some kind of conspiracy, by undercharging or instructing his assistants not to make certain kinds of arguments.

Even some lawyers have joined in accusing him of incompetence. Most of them know or should know that a trial is a dynamic process. Even the best-laid plans have to be changed sometimes in a split second. Something will always change or go wrong, the unexpected always happen.

This is why some of us love trial work, because the dynamic pace and the unpredictability gets the adrenaline flowing. I get the same rush I got when I was being shot at in Vietnam. I left for a while but missed the action.

It appears from media accounts that the judge [E. Allen Shepherd] dismissed some of the charges because the government failed to prove them. Unless the prosecutor manufactures evidence, there is not much they can do about that. They are stuck with the facts brought to them by the police.

None of us wants prosecutors who make up evidence or play fast and loose with the facts. This is how innocent people wind up on death row. . . .

The unwarranted criticism by some lawyers borders on the unethical because it reduces the confidence of the public in our courts.

Criticism should be leveled when warranted, but this kind of criticism that suggests willful wrong without any evidence damages our system and the profession.

The constant drumbeat of the media has the same results. I certainly support freedom of the press as a watchdog over government. Indeed, given its protection in our Constitution and by our courts, it is a fourth branch of government.

This status and duty also impose a serious responsibility not only to report but also to explain and educate. This would have been a great opportunity for the media to explain how our criminal justice system works. But they have not.

As I have written before, prosecutors are only part of the process. In most jurisdictions, cases usually start with a sworn citizen's complaint or the police who investigate and bring evidence to the prosecutor. Based upon this evidence, prosecutors decide what charges can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. They also determine if the police violated any law or the constitutional rights of the accused in conducting the investigation.

A defense lawyer is retained or appointed. The charges and facts are reviewed to determine if there is probable cause, a good reason, to believe that the accused committed the crime; if not, some or all of the charges may be dismissed at this point.

The job of the defense counsel is to make the government prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt by challenging it at every step along the way beginning with pretrial motions to dismiss for various reasons, ranging from insufficient evidence to police misconduct.

If "probable cause" is found by a judicial officer in a felony case, the charges are sent to a grand jury, a group of citizens from the community, to determine if the case should go forward. If the grand jury believes that a crime was committed and the accused committed it, the accused is "arraigned"; that is, the accusations are read to the accused in open court, and a plea is entered. Usually, the defense attorney enters a not guilty plea until he and his investigator can investigate the accusations.

In all jurisdictions, the accused has a right to a jury trial in any case where the maximum penalty exceeds six months. The accused may chose whether he wants a trial by jury or by a judge.

The purpose of the jury in our democracy is to allow citizens to bring other experiences, community values and common sense to the process. This keeps the judicial branch open to input from the community it serves.

In our system, both sides present their case. And it is up to the judge or jury to make the decision as to guilt beyond a reasonable doubt or to find the defendant not guilty.

Not guilty does not mean that the accused is innocent but that the government failed to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

Because of the many human factors, a trial, especially a jury trial, is almost always unpredictable. Juries are very conscientious in performing their duties because for most, this is the first and last time they will set in judgment on another human being.

In short, to accuse Jack Johnson of "throwing cases" is to mislead the public and miss an opportunity to educate citizens about their system of justice.

This is an obligation of the media and the legal profession. The press has misled in this case, and lawyers who have joined in the criticism have misled by failing to respond by explaining the process.

-- Van Caldwell

Van Caldwell does criminal defense work. He lives in Kettering and was a law school classmate of State's Attorney Jack B. Johnson at Howard University Law School, Class of 1975.

A Lesson About Hatred

I have read copies of the letters sent to students and faculty at the University of Maryland expressing racial hatred. Sadly, the individual or group(s) involved have learned little about freedom, or life itself.

Racial intolerance is one of the greatest shames of mankind. It promotes bigotry, bias, prejudice, xenophobia, chauvinism and racism. The letters of hate sent to black students and faculty at the University of Maryland are intolerable, and it is truly fomented hate.

The Prince George's County Educators' Association, which represents more than 8,000 public school teachers, makes a daily effort to prepare students to lead lives that are free of racial bias and incompetence. An individual's self-concept is the core of his personality. It affects every aspect of human behavior and the ability to learn, the capacity to grow and change, and the choice of a mate, friends and careers. It is no exaggeration to say that a strong positive self-image is the best possible preparation for success in life.

We know that hatred is from those who think themselves limited, or unable, so they are. What freedom they wished for most is the freedom from responsibility.

The educators of Prince George's County encourage you at the university to continue to strive to promote positive self-image, diversity, equality, respect, compassion and liberality for students. When good people in any situation cease their vigilance and struggle, evil men prevail.

Celeste A. Williams

President

Prince George's County

Educators' Association

The Prince George's Extra welcomes Letters to the Editor. Fax to 301-952-1397, e-mail to pgextra@washpost.com or write to Letters to the Editor, Prince George's Extra, The Washington Post, 14402 Old Mill Rd., Suite 201, Upper Marlboro, Md. 20772. Please include your place of residence and a daytime phone. Letters may be edited.