Back when I was in the Navy it was a topic that came up from time to time among thoughtful officers: the danger of being devoted to one’s advancement directly, rather than being devoted to the job at hand and trusting that advancement would come naturally by doing one’s duty capably and worthily. There had been a sea change (appropriately nautical metaphor there) in the institutional attitude about this. Officers were actually given formal instruction on devising and implementing “career paths”, including tips on attaining personal advancement and so on.
Ugh. I found it very distasteful, and so did a lot of guys.
One episode that put the matter in stark relief was when this young Navy reporter from, I believe, “All Hands” magazine (the Navy is a society all unto itself, with its own customs, practices, and of course magazines and other media) interviewed the then still living – and legendary – Arleigh Burke. The young sailor asked Burke how he had managed to plan out his career so well that he attained his legendary status, not to mention the Navy’s highest and most coveted position – Chief of Naval Operations – to which Burke responded that he never thought once about a “career”, he just tried to be the best division officer he could be, then department head, then executive officer, then commanding officer, then squadron commander and commodore, then admiral.
How refreshing that was. There’s no such thing as a “career”. It is an abstraction, a sometimes useful but more often dangerous way of looking at one’s job. A job, any job, is primarily about what you do for others, not what you do for yourself. That is especially true of the professions, of course. And among them, especially true of the private practice of law. It is not true in anything like the same way for what we call “public prosecutors”, who ‘serve’ the ‘public’ – another occasionally useful but dangerous abstraction.
I was reminded of this when reading what might at this point be termed yet another tedious installment of criminal justice system dysfunction – which is to say it might be called tedious by those at a remove from it, but never by those directly affected by it – this one out of New York City and dealing with yet another lying police officer. This one named Scarcella.
The point of the article is that the problem isn’t just Scarcella, which is also to some extent Scarcella’s point, as he lobs disclaimers, denials, and blame shifting comments from the comfort of his retirement, a comfort of a kind none of his victims is ever likely to see after enduring decades of imprisonment and the ensuing diminished life.
But I digress.
The prosecutors come in for some criticism here. Muted, perhaps, with benign sounding terms like “missteps”, but then the article does begin with a very clear example of a prosecutor backing Scarcella to the hilt at the expense of one of his victims, knowing full well that Scarcella’s work was already, at the very least and putting it mildly, suspect.
Not only that – because I have lately been so critical of the media, including of course the New York Times and its establishmentarian apologism in, say, the Central Park Five matter – but the article also contains some hints at the wider problem, of which the author seems aware more implicitly than explicitly:
The critics note that Mr. Hynes, 78, is seeking re-election and that Mr. Scarcella’s daughter works in the office as a prosecutor. In a brief interview, Mr. Hynes said that so far no glaring problems had been discovered in the review. He said the detective’s sloppy work was not brought to the office’s attention until a year ago, when it reopened the case that led to an exoneration. Even in that case, he found no reason to blame the prosecutors.
“I am not going to second-guess the assistants involved,” Mr. Hynes said. “They are very good trial lawyers.”
The allegations, let us face it Mr. Hynes, are not that the detective’s work was “sloppy”. And considering that we are talking about beating confessions out of innocent people and then convicting them of crimes and imprisoning them, of what significance is the fact, assuming it is a fact, that “the [assistant prosecutors] involved” are “very good trial lawyers”? Why does that matter? Isn’t this a really odd thing to say under the circumstances?
It’s not odd, I suppose, if you are “career-minded” to a pathological degree.
Does this attitude come to permeate the office that Mr. Hynes has run for decades? Oh, yes:
Jeffrey I. Ginsberg, a former assistant district attorney who also prosecuted two of the convictions under review, said the cases might look bad in retrospect, but they needed to be considered in the context of the 1980s and ’90s, when the crack epidemic was helping fuel a crime wave.
“The witnesses often came in orange jumpsuits,” said Mr. Ginsberg, referring to the outfit worn by inmates. “I was not afraid to go to trial on a weak case. I was not afraid to lose. I was not lying and cheating to get a conviction.”
Well, okay Mr. Ginsberg. You were not lying and cheating to get a conviction. Let’s give you credit for that. I mean, after all, you can’t say that about every prosecutor, and some of them don’t even think lying and cheating to get a conviction is wrong. But seriously, it’s a pretty low bar you’re setting for yourself.
Perhaps part of the reason is the pathology at work in your own head.
You were “not afraid to go to trial on a weak case”? You were “…not afraid to lose”? You should have been terrified to go to trial on a weak case, and not because you might “lose”, but because you might convict an innocent person, which – if you were sane and not utterly pathological at least in this respect – you would understand is far, far worse than “losing” a trial and not obtaining a conviction. When you convict an innocent person – moron – you have lost, and so have a lot of other people.
There should be lawyer re-education camps for people like you, and if you don’t go you should be disbarred. Thinking like that you are not fit to be a lawyer, let alone a public prosecutor invested with the terrible power of government accusation. Can it be that you fail to appreciate how frightfully easy it is to “obtain convictions” as opposed to obtaining acquittals? Can it be that your boss doesn’t appreciate that either?
It could, especially if you are pathologically focused on an abstraction called your “career” in which others are just props in the play where you are the star and hero, intrepidly braving the pitfalls of a “weak case” to emerge triumphant, never mind that a weak case means there’s a good chance any conviction you get will be wrongful.
Careerism was an increasingly institutionalized problem in the Navy that was at least checked by vestigial devotion to martial virtues like courage and sacrifice. It is an intractable and systemic problem in the legal profession which by and large no longer even pretends a vestigial devotion to justice and truth, and where the meaningless abstractions of people’s “careers” are all that’s left.
So the NY Times deserves some credit here. Ms. Robles identified a serious systemic problem with wrongful convictions, if only gently and obliquely.
But then being more explicit would probably have been bad for her career.