District Attorney Frank Sedita's recent opinion piece demonstrates a disturbing misunderstanding of a prosecutor's role in our justice system, arguing that "wrongful acquittals" are the real problem in our system.
Acquittals result when prosecutors present an unconvincing version of events. The government has at its disposal vast resources and experienced prosecutors. If after giving its best effort the government cannot prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, then fairness and law dictate that the accused should be freed.
Sedita implies that the system would be more fair if the government were permitted to "appeal an acquittal" even though our Bill of Rights has always prohibited multiple prosecutions. Presumably, the government's appeals would end when a jury reached the "correct" verdict.
To be clear, the Founding Fathers did not impose the requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt and the prohibition against double jeopardy because they preferred criminals over law-abiding citizens. These protections are in place because they experienced firsthand the evils of unchecked authority. By Sedita's own admission, he views these cherished rights as a "flaw" that he must "accept." The primacy of individual rights is not a "flaw" in our system. Americans have fought and died to protect our justice system, which, by design, places the jury in a position to protect the accused from the government.
It is the participation of everyday citizens that makes our system the best in the world. Sedita believes that juries should agree with his assessment of cases. When they do not, he explains to the public that their decisions were wrong. Sedita does not accept that an acquittal can be a just outcome, because it is inconsistent with his view that all of the cases he prosecutes should result in convictions. Erie County juries are rightly skeptical of a public official who believes he is almost never wrong.
To date, 24 people in New York have been exonerated by DNA evidence, exceeded only by Texas and Illinois. These cases are likely just the tip of the iceberg, since in most cases there is no DNA and therefore no scientific means to prove that a conviction was in error. Consider that in 2011, more than 11,400 people were sentenced to imprisonment in New York State. If one assumes an error rate of 1 percent, 114 innocent people were locked away last year alone.
The blessing of DNA evidence should cause us to closely examine and refine our system. Sedita advocates for less introspection and no change. He asks us simply to trust his judgment. In the end, it remains a fact that juries are fallible. District attorneys are also fallible. Our Constitution simply prefers the fallibility of the average citizen to that of an elected official.