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Prosecutors: What Makes a Reformer?

Beth McCann, Denver DA

Prosecutors: What Makes a Reformer?

Note: This first appeared in our daily In Justice Today newsletter. To get stories like these in your inbox every day, you can sign up here.

Josie Duffy Rice’s new editorial in the New York Times, “Cy Vance and the Myth of the Progressive Prosecutor,” explains the need to measure elected officials by what they actually do — and not just what they say — to promote justice reform. Here is a summary of that piece, as well as three examples of forward-thinking elected prosecutors taking steps toward reform.

  • Cy Vance and the Myth of the Progressive Prosecutor. Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance opted not to charge Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump, Jr. for fraud. He also opted not to prosecute Harvey Weinstein for sexual abuse. But his bigger faults revolve around those people, mostly poor and mostly Black and Latinx, that his office did prosecute. As Duffy Rice points out, Vance touts himself as a criminal justice reformer, and he is widely considered to be one of the most progressive prosecutors in America. Yet, his actions often do not match his words: “As of 2015, Mr. Vance was more likely to prosecute a misdemeanor charge than any other district attorney in New York City,” Duffy Rice explains, and “last year, 51 percent of marijuana cases involving black defendants in Manhattan ended in conviction, while only 23 percent involving whites did.” She also links this dichotomy between word and deed to other well-known head prosecutors, like Leon Cannizzaro in New Orleans, Louisiana and Jackie Lacey in Los Angeles, California. [Josie Duffy Rice / New York Times]
  • After Freddie Gray, Marilyn Mosby Intends to Keep on Fighting the Good Fight. Most people know Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby as the young, Black woman prosecutor who tried and failed to prosecute several police officers for Freddie Gray’s death. However, the full picture is much more complex. As head prosecutor, Mosby has presided over the exoneration of two wrongfully convicted men in the past three years. She also recently dismissed “more than 30 cases [] because officers were caught on body cameras appearing to plant evidence or to be ‘re-creating’ crime scenes, and now hundreds of other cases involving these officers are under review.” [Ericka Blount Danois / The Root] On her watch, the felony conviction rate decreased, which the Wall Street Journal used to criticize her. Yet, discussing the drop, Mosby said: “It’s shameful to take pride in overwhelming conviction rates. We are here to do justice and make Baltimore safer, not gloat.”
  • Elections Matter: Lamonte McIntyre, wrongly imprisoned for 23 years for double murder, finally set free in Kansas City, Kansas. This year, Mark Dupree became the Wyandotte County District Attorney, a job that makes him the head prosecutor in Kansas City. As a 34 year-old who spent eight years as a criminal defense lawyer, Dupree unseated the incumbent by 20 points. One of Dupree’s first big challenges this year, has been how to handle the case of Lamont McIntyre, who was arrested at 17 for murder and has spent 23 year incarcerated. Very little evidence tied McIntyre to the crime, and over the years a variety of improper conduct — including by former prosecutors from Wyandotte County — undermined faith in the verdict. These facts led Dupree not to challenge the defense’s post-conviction motion to vacate the sentence. The founder of Centurion Missions, a group that has worked on 58 cases that resulted in exoneration, said that he had never seen such swift and full cooperation before: “When District Attorney Mark Dupree not only recommended to the judge he (McIntyre) get a new trial, but then dismissed all the charges, that’s never happened in a full swoop in any one of our cases.” [Eric Adler, Glenn Rice, and Max Londberg / Kansas City Star]
  • Denver District Attorney opts to not charge former cheerleading coach in painful splits investigation. Footage of a former East High School cheerleading coach, Ozell Williams, pushing girls on his team to do painful splits became a national viral video. While uncomfortable and disturbing, Denver District Attorney Beth McCann decided that Williams’ conduct was not criminal in nature. The school fired him, and residents interviewed by a local media station opined that this was the appropriate sanction. McCann, who started her tenure by stating she would never seek the death penalty, said that “[s]imply by not filing criminal charges, is in no way saying that I didn’t believe them or that what happened to them wasn’t horrible.” [WALB]

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