The words of Mike McLelland, the District Attorney of Kaufman County Texas, as he stood before the cameras promising to find the murderer(s) of his colleague, Assistant Dist. Atty. Mark Hasse and that he would, “pull you out of whatever hole you’re in” to bring the full weight of our law to bear on you were probably soothing to the residents of Kaufman County. Their District Attorney was not going to let the senseless murder of his friend and colleague Hasse go unpunished–and impliedly McLelland would personally see to it that the punishment was severe, commensurate with the dastardly deed that took his friend’s life. As District Attorney McLelland might be in a position to do exactly as he promised. District attorneys are given considerable power to affect the outcome of trials and the sentences that follow conviction.
Mr. McLelland’s words, however, were sadly reminiscent of another law official’s swashbuckling bravado several years ago in Fort Myers Florida. There, a sheriff’s deputy promised to bring some drug dealers to justice. He would hunt them down. They would not be allowed to roam in his district or place the citizens of his area in jeopardy because of their criminal ways. I remember thinking as I watched the not very subtle threats of this sheriff’s deputy that he was either wittingly or unwittingly making himself the target of the very people he threatened to hunt down. That same evening the police station in Fort Myers Beach was burned. Officials estimated millions of dollars of damage. It struck me that law-enforcement officials, although imbued with significant power, are ill-advised to speak of that power in public as though it were a personal device that can be ratcheted up when they are personally affected by crime. They are, after all, public officials, only entrusted with these significant powers because the public sees fit to entrust them.
This is not to say that Mr. McLelland brought about his own death and the death of his wife. It is only to say that he was an experienced prosecutor. And, as such, McLelland would know that the business of prosecuting crime is not personal. He represents the people of the entire District.The District belongs to the people, not him.
Any eventual prosecution would not be about McLelland’s personal feelings for his colleague Mark Hasse. Instead, the prosecution would be about a fair representation of the evidence gathered by investigators without regard to his personal relationship with the victim.
Otherwise, Mr. McLelland’s public duty would be to turn the case over to another prosecutor, one less involved and less impassioned by the identity of the victim. Only then does the system operate fairly. Professionally Mr. McLelland would have to exercise a duty of fairness toward the accused, presenting evidence both favorable and unfavorable to the accused as long as McLelland concluded that the evidence was true.
The criminal justice system is not supposed to be about vengeance. Members of the bar, both prosecutors and defense lawyers, are taught that they have a duty to the court. Their duty requires fairness and balance. It requires that they never knowingly mislead the court in any fashion, either factually or in law.
The criminal justice system is therefore never meant to be personal. It is to be just the opposite, fair and impartial. When lawyers find selves in positions where their personal feelings prevent calm reflective independence, they are well advised to disengage themselves from the proceedings. They are unable to fulfill their duties professionally.
There is a well known saying in law. It is: “Justice must not only be done, but be seen to be done.” This phrase encompasses the idea that even the appearance of injustice is not to be tolerated. A prosecutor who threatens to make persons pay heavily for their crime, even before the accused are apprehended and charged might be seen by the court as presenting the appearance of injustice in the role of prosecutor at a later trial.
Unfortunately Mr. McLelland may have paid for his lack of professional distance with his life. But the circumstances of this case will hopefully remind all lawyers functioning in the criminal justice system that they have a duty of dispassionate professionalism. Nothing less will suffice.