Thanks were expressed and tales were told during Thursday’s high-spirited swearing-in ceremonies for new McLennan County District Attorney Barry Johnson, which is as it should be. Given the allegations of cronyism and worse that prompted voters to oust his predecessor, Johnson will need all the best wishes he can corral as he seeks to return accountability, transparency and integrity to the district attorney’s office. The banner at the Baylor Law School lecture hall where oaths of office were taken had it right: “Justice and fairness for all.”
Johnson’s instincts are on-target. Some folks believe a district attorney’s success is measured by how many cases one prosecutes and how many bad guys he or she can put behind bars. But the role of the DA is widely misunderstood. While a defense attorney is obligated to do whatever he or she can on behalf of his or her client (within the bounds of justice and the law, of course), the district attorney’s first priority is seeing justice served. And that doesn’t mean prosecuting every case, even after indictment. Sometimes other options make more sense. Sometimes continuing investigations yield new revelations that grand juries didn’t consider or even hear.
We saw some of this late last year when local prosecutors realized they had a rape case that might implode during a full-blown trial because of conflicting victim statements (which federal law requires prosecutors hand over to defense counsel). Prosecutors opted to press for a plea deal that at least placed some punitive consequences on the accused. The district judge’s acceptance of this deal last month sparked national outrage, even drawing death (and rape) threats for some involved. But as a retired jurist wisely stressed to us one evening, can any of us really say this wasn’t the best option? To have pressed a trial with conflicting evidence could have allowed the accused to go free with no penalties rather than some, including probation. And it sure could have further traumatized the young victim.
Some have questioned Johnson’s limited experience in criminal law, but the longtime 62-year-old attorney clearly understands the critical role of the prosecutor in American society, which is most important at this stage. His staff of assistant district attorneys strikes us as more than able. “A prosecutor’s duty is not to convict but to see that justice is done,” Johnson said Thursday. “It sounds easy. It can be easy. But it can also be incredibly difficult. That is where we are going with it. We are going to see that justice is done by protecting the constitutional and statutory rights afforded to every person in our county without respect to race, ethnicity, gender, religion or socio-economic status.”
Well spoken. So let’s wish Johnson the best, especially as he seeks to smartly address remaining cases from the 2015 Twin Peaks shooting melee that became such a national disgrace under Johnson’s predecessor, complete with scores of bikers wrongfully jailed. And while Johnson learns the ropes of overseeing the DA’s office and seeing justice is done, it wouldn’t hurt if a few of us brushed up on criminal justice basics.