By Márcia Mayer
We rooted for Jack McCoy on Law and Order, and loved to hate Peter Florrick on The Good Wife, but unless you actually work with a District Attorney’s office, you will probably find yourself reaching for a guidebook on the structure of that office and how it fits in with the other branches of the government when you start watching the Independent Lens docuseries Philly D.A.
In short, what exactly do they do?
It Starts With the District Attorney
A District Attorney, or D.A., can also be called State Attorney, County Attorney, or County Prosecutor. In this piece, all references to District Attorney (or their deputies, assistants, etc.) also refer to those who occupy the same post but under a different name. Most commonly, they are referred to simply as “Prosecutors,” as that is the job function for which they are best known. Their duties span far more than that, however. The District Attorney is the most senior attorney representing the State in a local government area (typically a single county, though sometimes covering multiple counties).
Their duties span far more than that, however. The District Attorney is the most senior attorney representing the State in a local government area (typically a single county, though sometimes covering multiple counties).
District Attorneys differ from City Attorneys in that the latter are responsible for the more technical aspects of running the municipality such as drafting ordinances and advising the city council on proposals and resolutions. They do prosecute and represent the City in criminal cases, but only those that arise from violating a city ordinance, such as noise complaints.
D.A.s represent the State in all criminal trials for crimes that occurred within their jurisdiction (excluding Federal Crimes).
This means that in addition to presenting cases against individuals suspected of breaking the law, D.A.s also defend the State in any civil suits brought against it. Perhaps most importantly, though, is how few constraints D.A.s have in deciding which cases they will and will not prosecute, as well as recommending sentencing for the cases that are brought to court.
As such, they are the single most meaningful agents of change (or lack thereof) within the Criminal Justice System.
The District Attorney of a large jurisdiction, like Larry Krasner in Philadelphia—the subject of Philly D.A.—oversees an office of hundreds of staff members across more than a dozen specialized departments. The D.A. sets the mandate from the top down about which types of cases should be prioritized and personally handles the highest-profile cases.
The Executive Assistant D.A. (also referred to as First Assistant D. A.) is the second-in-command, supervising the daily activities of the office, hiring Deputy D.A.s, and overseeing any relevant press communication. In Philadelphia, Larry Krasner chose to appoint two First Assistants, Judge Carolyn Engel Temin and Bob Listenbee, describing his office as a train with three drivers1.
Specialized Units are each overseen by their own Assistant District Attorney and include Charging (led by Lyandra Retacco in Philadelphia), Child Advocacy and Support, Domestic Violence, Drug Prosecution, Felony, Forfeitures, Homicide (led by Anthony Voci in Philadelphia), Juvenile (led by Ebony Wortham in Philadelphia), Misdemeanor, Organized Crime, and Traffic. Krasner is one of the few District Attorneys in the country to have set up a Conviction Integrity Unit, led by Patricia Cummings, whose sole purpose is to search through past cases for people who were wrongfully convicted of a crime.
Within each Unit are several Deputy District Attorneys, who are the line-level prosecutors responsible for prosecuting a large majority of criminal cases in the United States. Some D.A. offices also have their own Special Investigations Unit, with District Attorney Investigators who operate separately from the local police force. In Philadelphia, Tracy Tripp leads this unit. Most offices also rely on numerous support staff, which can include communications specialists and paralegals.
Life Cycle of a Case
Some cases are “proactive”, meaning they originate from the D.A. office itself, either from a tip or because they are relevant to that District Attorney’s mandate. Philly D.A. covers the murder charges Larry Krasner brought against Ryan Pownall, a former police officer charged with the on-duty fatal shooting of David Jones, a 30-year-old Black man2. This case is representative of Krasner’s scrutiny of the Philadelphia Police Department. Commonly, cases are “reactive,” meaning they originate from the Police Department. The Police Department files a report recommending charges with the appropriate Deputy District Attorney (D.D.A.) and Unit.
The D.D.A. then reviews the case and decides how to proceed. They can choose to request additional investigation, file the recommended charges, file additional charges on top of the police’s recommendation, or not file charges at all.
If someone is arrested and the D.D.A. chooses not to file charges, that person is then immediately released. If the D.D.A. does file charges, they will represent the State at the initial hearing, or arraignment, where they define what those charges are, the crime’s category (infraction, misdemeanor, or felony), and whether there will or will not be cash bail.
Between the arraignment and the trial itself, the D.D.A. can enter into a plea bargain with the defendant, continue investigating the case, grant immunity to witnesses (or to the defendant in exchange for future cooperation on a different case), and pick the jury along with the defendant’s counsel.
In practice, over 90% of cases end in plea bargains3 – the system would collapse under its own weight if every charge went to trial. At trial, the onus is on the D.D.A. (or A.D.A or D.A. depending on the level of the case) to prove the defendant guilty. The accused has no burden to provide exculpatory evidence, and, in fact, the District Attorney’s office is legally obligated to hand over exculpatory evidence found during investigation to the Defense Attorney.
Critics allege that this law is frequently violated, or only adhered to through the thinnest of loopholes: the D.A.’s office will turn over exculpatory evidence mere hours before a case goes to trial, thereby minimizing the possibility that a Defense Attorney will be able to effectively use that evidence in court.
How Your District Attorney Works For You
District Attorneys have no boss. The State Attorney General may have the power to review complaints about District Attorneys, but in practice, this rarely happens. It is rarer still for an Attorney General to discipline a D.A.
A District Attorney truly only has one client: the government. But how to define that client? Is it county officials, such as the local Board of Elections? Is it local Law Enforcement? Or is it the idea of “a more perfect union” for the people? That choice is up to us.
The United States is the only country in the world that elects District Attorneys. But some argue we may be squandering the opportunity to make those elections meaningful. While any attorney who has passed the Bar Exam and been admitted to practice law in their jurisdiction can run for the position, 75% of prosecutor elections with an incumbent candidate are unopposed, and 47% of prosecutor elections with no incumbent are unopposed4. Critics say this belies systematic and unfair retaliation against failed prosecutor challengers.
D.A.s are unique in that they are less constrained by outside actors than almost any other part of the Criminal Justice System. In fact, they may be the best, least-known, way to change the system from within by declining to charge low-level offenses, as Larry Krasner has done, choosing to divert jail sentences into program participation or drug treatment, and eliminating cash bail.
Civil rights lawsuits are very hard to win, and, even once won, they do not guarantee legal changes. But electing a single person who wants to focus on prosecuting specific types of crimes (environmental, domestic violence, etc.), or remove prosecutorial focus from other types (low-level drug possession, for instance) can bring about the equivalent of years of legislative reform.
There are over 1,000 elections for District Attorneys in 2021. Who will win your vote?
Citations and Further Reading
- Krasner Names Former Obama DOJ Official As New First Assistant DA
- David Jones shooting: Ex-officer Ryan Pownall charged
- Prisons are packed because prosecutors are coercing plea deals. And, yes, it’s totally legal.
- National Study of Prosecutor Elections
Márcia Mayer is a Film Independent Spirit Award-nominated producer and writer dedicated to creating exciting, emotionally engaging stories that expand audiences’ capacity for empathy and understanding across different cultures.