Prosecutors conduct criminal and civil proceedings on behalf of the government. They have a variety of job titles based on what level of government they are employed by and their responsibilities. At the city level, prosecutors are often known as assistant city attorneys and city attorneys. Prosecutors who work at the county level are known as assistant district attorneys, assistant prosecuting attorneys, prosecuting attorneys, and district attorneys. At the state level, prosecutors are known as assistant state attorneys and states attorneys. Federal prosecutors are known as assistant U.S. attorneys or U.S. attorneys. Some prosecutors are elected (for example, district attorneys) and others (such as U.S. attorneys) are appointed by government officials.
A prosecutor’s approach will differ according to each case. Once assigned to a case, prosecutors familiarize themselves with the details of the case. They put considerable time and thought into preparing a case against the defendant. They review all evidence regarding the alleged crime, conduct a formal investigation, and interview witnesses who were present at the time of the crime. Prosecutors may also interview police officers or criminalists for more details. They may confer with social workers, physicians, or others for background information on the defendant or the nature of the crime. Police officers or investigators may be asked to uncover additional evidence against the defendant.
At the defendant’s first court appearance, known as a first appearance, the prosecutor states the charges and recommends the bail amount. Set by the presiding judge, bail is a monetary amount the defendant must pay the court in order to be released from jail during the duration of a trial. Usually, the defendant pays a percentage of the set bail amount to a bond company who then pays the full amount to the court in the event the defendant fails to appear for any future court appearances. Prosecutors may also recommend that some defendants be denied bail if they are considered a danger to the public or a flight risk.
The next step in states that do not use a grand jury to indict is the preliminary hearing, in which the prosecutor presents evidence that helps the judge determine if probable cause exists and if the defendant charged is the person who committed the crime.
After this, an arraignment is scheduled. The prosecutor meets with the defendant and his or her attorneys to discuss the charges. He or she presents all evidence and charges against the defendant. At this time, a plea bargain—the act of a defendant being charged for the lesser of multiple crimes in exchange for an admission of guilt—may be discussed. About 90 percent of criminal prosecutions in the United States are resolved through some form of plea bargain.
Sometimes, defendants refuse to plead guilty, or the alleged crime is too serious to strike a plea bargain. In such cases prosecutors are challenged to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” the defendant is guilty of the crime. Prosecutors often must appear before a judge numerous times to defend the validity of the charge or challenge special requests from the defense (such as moving the case to another location)—even before the case is officially brought to trial.
Once at trial, prosecutors begin by making an opening statement that provides the judge or jury an official account of the alleged crime. They present evidence, call witnesses or specialists to give testimony, and cross examine witnesses and challenge any evidence presented by the defense. If the defendant is convicted, the judge decides on the severity of the sentence, though prosecutors may make a recommendation.
Prosecutors have a considerable amount of authority, and they must take care to use this power wisely. Besides plea bargains, they have the authority to grant immunity to certain witnesses who may otherwise be reluctant to give testimony. They also decide when, where, and how to charge those accused of a crime.
Defense lawyers specialize in cases dealing with offenses committed against society or the state, including theft, assault, rape, kidnapping, armed robbery, murder, vandalism, burglary, driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, illegal drug possession, arson, fraud, embezzlement, and treason, among others. They interview clients and witnesses to ascertain facts in a case, examine the crime scene, interview witnesses, correlate their findings with known cases, and prepare a case and strategies to defend a client against the charges made. They conduct a defense at the trial, present an opening statement that details why their client is innocent of the charges, examine witnesses, and summarize the case with a closing argument to a judge or jury.
If the judge or jury convicts the defendant, the defense lawyer may, at the instruction of his or her client, file an appeal to a higher court (an appellate court), which reviews the trial proceedings to determine if any errors were made. If significant errors are identified, the case may be retried. In this instance, the defense lawyer may work the appeal or, if he or she is not experienced in practicing appellate law, refer to the case to an appellate lawyer.
Lawyers practicing public defense, sometimes referred to as indigent law, represent those unable to afford private counsel. Such lawyers are termed public defenders or indigent lawyers. Their clients include those charged with a variety of offenses, misdemeanors, or felony crimes. They also represent the developmentally disabled, the mentally ill, and those appearing before family court, many of whom are juveniles. Public defenders also represent clients continuing on to appeals court.
Public defenders are assigned cases according to the jurisdiction of their workplace—local, state, or federal public defender offices. They often begin a new case with a one-on-one consultation with the client to determine the nature of the charge. Public defenders then conduct research on a case by interviewing the defendant and other witnesses, conducting background checks, consulting with the prosecuting attorneys, and preparing briefs. They often consult with the police department, social workers, and criminal investigators who may be able to provide additional information about the case. Public defenders usually work without the help of support staff, so they spend a great deal of time doing their own investigative work and filing legal documents.
To start, public defenders may advise their client to make a plea bargain, or choose to proceed to trial. If the case goes to trial, before a judge or jury, public defenders prepare their client for the proceedings, and ready them for any questioning or cross examination that may take place. They also write their brief, notify and prepare key witnesses, and collect any pertinent information or documents. If their client is found guilty, public defenders may, depending on the state and severity of the crime, be retained to appeal the verdict.
Public defenders may also work as attorneys for nonprofit organizations. In such cases, they may provide other services such as community intervention, family counseling, education, and social service support.
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