Van Jones, the former White House “czar” of something or other turned smooth-talking racialist warrior on CNN’s “Cross-Fire” and various TV panels, was arguing for frank racial dialogue on ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos,” in the context of the protests over the Ferguson and Staten Island police grand jury decisions. Sounding reasonable as he often does, Jones then said that what should be an area of agreement is the need for a special prosecutor whenever police misconduct is before a grand jury, noting that it was an “obvious conflict of interest”for prosecutors who work with police as a core element of their job.
I have addressed this argument before, but let me be clearer. This is a conflict of interest that a competent and ethical prosecutor should acknowledge and be able to deal with as the legal ethics rule require. The prosecutor should get a waiver from his or her client—not the victim’s family, but the government the prosecutor represents—and honestly assess whether the fact that the police serve the same client will prevent the prosecutor from being fair and objective. If the answer is yes, then the prosecutor must recuse, but I see no reason why the answer should be yes, if the prosecutor is ethical and worthy of the position.(Jones and other advocates for this “solution” have a bias against prosecutors, whom they view as presumptively unethical.)
Theoretically, every case in which an officer’s credibility determines whether a citizen should be charged poses the same conflict: it is endemic to the prosecutor’s job. Indeed, prosecutors have a very good reason to want bad cops punished and removed from the police force; I’m not at all certain that there is a necessary bias on the part of prosecutors in favor of letting such cops escape legal consequences of their actions. That assumption is based on the assumption that prosecutors don’t care about justice. Nobody who doesn’t care about justice becomes a prosecutor. Why would they? It is a hard, frustrating job and the pay isn’t anything special.
The strongest argument for a special prosecutor is a different ethical problem, the appearance of impropriety. If the decision to prosecute or not is tainted with suspicion of bias, then the justice system is compromised and breaks down. This is why, for example, it is terrible that the Justice Department, a super-politicized one at that, is supposedly investigating the I.R.S. scandal.
As George moved to another topic, Jones blurted out a final statement that caused me to spit-take a mouthful of coffee. It undermined all of his finely tuned rhetoric about fairness and non-partisan dialogue about race, and exposed, ironically, his own biases. He said;
“If there had been a special prosecutor in Ferguson, we would have had a different result.”
AHA! Continue reading