It’s always heartening to see a court cite the 1935 Supreme Court case of Berger v. United States, 295 U.S. 78, (1935), famous in legal ethics circles for its ringing statement that government lawyers must understand that their obligation “in a criminal prosecution is not that it shall win . . . , but that justice shall be done.” The principle has been extended by some judges to civil cases as well, making the point that the government in any legal dispute should be interested only in the best interests of citizens and getting the case right. It is less heartening when the cite is in a dissent, as in this case.
The Ninth Circuit, reviewing a conviction for illegal drug importation, conceded that the prosecutor crossed into unethical territory by misstating the law,misstating the defendant’s testimony, and improperly vouching for a witness. Nonetheless, the court in State v. Flores concluded that this misconduct didn’t rise to the level of “plain error,” meaning that the defendant would have been found guilty anyway:
“In sum, while the government misrepresented Flores’s testimony and misstated the law on multiple occasions, in the context of the trial as a whole, it is unlikely that the jury was misled about the law or the facts.”
That’s right: the government misrepresented facts and law, but the jury was probably not misled. Continue reading