The Role of the Prosecutor

Ethics, Prosecution 101
Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery Swears in New Prosecutor

Many people think the role of the prosecutor is to simply secure a conviction. Not true.

The role of the prosecutor is to seek justice – even if that means asking the court to dismiss a specific charge or an entire case against a defendant when the evidence calls for it. And while a prosecutor has a lot of responsibility, prosecutors are bound by strict rules and standards, with a lot of oversight.

To prepare for representing the people of Maricopa County, all incoming attorneys receive extensive training. The four weeks of initial training covers such topics as ethical rules, professional standards and Rules of Criminal Procedure. Together, these guide a prosecutor’s duty to protect a defendant’s right to due process, the rights of victims of crime, and to contribute to the public’s confidence in our criminal justice system. The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office also provides more than 100 hours of Continuing Legal Education on these issues and more each year for support staff, paralegals and attorneys.

There are other important checks on a prosecutor’s ability to bring charges and prosecute someone of a crime. He or she must:

  • Make a showing of probable cause before charges can be filed by either obtaining a Grand Jury indictment or a finding of probable cause from a Judicial Officer
  • Present any exculpatory evidence before the Grand Jury
  • Disclose exculpatory evidence that can help the defense
  • Disclose information to impeach witnesses, or that could affect the credibility of a witness for either the defense or the prosecution
  • Convince every member of a trial jury of a defendant’s guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt”

Furthermore, even after conviction, all defendants have the opportunity to file appeals, and requests for clemency or commutation. Every prosecutor who comes to work at the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office is presented with a card when they complete their initial training that contains this important quote that clearly and eloquently states what it means to be a prosecutor. It comes from a 1935 US Supreme Court decision known as Berger v. United States:

“The [prosecutor] is…the servant of the law, the twofold aim of which is that guilt shall not escape or innocence suffer.

It is as much his duty to refrain from improper methods calculated to produce a wrongful conviction as it is to use every legitimate means to bring about a just one.”

Additional oversight of the prosecutor’s role comes from judges, defense attorneys, the media and members of the public. No other function in our system of criminal justice is more checked, scrutinized, or capable of confirming or undermining our confidence in the just outcomes than that of the prosecutor. Given the degree of responsibility we have, the oversight is welcome. Given the degree to which we protect the public, justice is our reward.

For video of County Attorney Bill Montgomery’s remarks on the Responsibilities of a Prosecutor given at a recent press conference, visit MCAOTV at this link: https://youtu.be/2zo8J8wmov4