The role of a local head prosecutor is to prosecute crimes. This is not an inherently political position. However, the reality is it has become one, as prosecutors are elected in most states.
People are taking notice of prosecutors, as they ultimately decide if a cop gets charged with a crime for shooting an unarmed black person, if a person who steals a candy bar gets a prohibitively high bail amount, and everything in between. They have a huge amount of power to irreparably destroy human lives.
One way to address this pervasive problem is to abolish the role of district attorney spokesperson. Make it a standard element of reforming prosecutor’s offices.
In more progressive cities and states, incumbents are under fire for perpetuating the policies that have led to mass incarceration, mocking transparency, and refusing to charge police for the extrajudicial killings of civilians.
Most urban district attorneys and their equivalents have full-time media liaisons, paid for by public tax dollars, to play damage control on legitimate criticisms of their offices. Unfortunately, this crisis communications strategy has tilted over to propaganda too often, misleading mainstream journalists away from the truth. And public defense lawyers are loathe to speak to journalists.
Conventional wisdom among defense lawyers is that a defense lawyer’s only legitimate priority is the interests of individual clients. Engaging the media is seen by the defense bar as rarely helpful and potentially harmful.
Specifically, consider the career and style of Oren Yaniv, the abusive and combative spokesperson for Brooklyn district attorney Eric Gonzalez.
Yaniv, a former reporter at the New York Daily News, regularly shares articles from local reporters, only to knock them when they do not shine his boss in the light he would prefer. Spokesman Yaniv also mocks “certain self-proclaimed criminal justice reformers” and claims without context that they support prosecutorial misconduct.
As a reporter, Yaniv adored former Brooklyn district attorney Ken Thompson. Thompson was heralded as a prototypical reformer when he announced a stop to low-level marijuana possession prosecutions in 2014, a time when the office was prosecuting about 90 percent of these arrests. But today, the office still prosecutes around 84 percent of arrests.
Another illustrative example involves how a district attorney spokesperson addressed a drug lab scandal, which tainted tens of thousands of drug convictions and led to the reversal of over 20,000 drug convictions.
Chemist Annie Dookhan was potentially motivated in part by her romantic feelings for then-Norfolk County Assistant District Attorney George Papachristos. Her email correspondence with him, as well as the fact that she kept a “bunch of photos” of Papachristos on her computer, point to this theory, which the state’s official investigation discounted and ignored.
Predictably, Norfolk County district attorney Michael W. Morrissey dug his head in the sand, claiming, “George never socially met her or had a relationship with her,” while refusing to comment on the copious emails.
David Traub, the press officer and communications director for Morrissey, recently went to bat for his boss, when asked some questions about the scandal by a local citizen journalist, James Folk.
He shamelessly claimed he was aware of no “special insight into the motivations” of Dookhan’s activities, parroted the state’s conclusion that Dookhan was the only wrongdoer, and normalized his office’s penchant for calling nonviolent drug offenders “scumbags” and “pieces of garbage.”
Traub is paid over $85,000 annually from state taxpayer dollars to make these kind of public statements.
One-time friend of Bret Easton Ellis, Pierce County (WA) prosecutor Mark Lindquist, is another prime example of why district attorney’s should no longer have spokespeople.
Lindquist is currently under fire from the state’s attorney licensing board for going on Nancy Grace’s show on HLN to opine about the state of mind of a defendant being prosecuted by his office while a trial was still ongoing. His team of prosecutors also repeatedly engaged in prosecutorial misconduct, which led to the reversal of serious convictions.
His spokesman, James Lynch, went to a new and juvenile low point to protect his scandal-ridden boss. Lynch attempted to edit Mark Lindquist’s personal Wikipedia page to make it more flattering. Wikipedia administrators detected the changes, but he persisted until they banned Lindquist’s spokesman from the site.
Lynch makes about $85,000 a year for job duties that apparently include trolling open access online encyclopedias.
Prosecutors unilaterally decide who faces the death penalty. Some believe they know better than the Supreme Court as to whether kids who commit serious crimes are worthy of a second chance at life beyond bars; in Michigan, they got their state supreme court to mostly agree.
They can effectively end cash bail in their jurisdictions, but the vast majority oppose such reform. Several officials, like San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan, lie about considering it to make themselves look better after contested elections. They rarely, if ever, face discipline by state attorney licensing boards and line prosecutors are allowed to make financial contributions to help them pick their bosses.
Given all the power prosecutors have to escape accountability, the public really should not have to also pay the salary of an official who will simply peddle propaganda to make it easier for the government to defend abuses.