Brow Beat

John Oliver Explains How Prosecutors, Not Judges or Juries, Control Your Fate in Court

John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight has untangled some of the knottier aspects of the criminal justice system in the past, including the public defender system. On Sunday night’s episode, the show looked to the other side of the courtroom, at a group that often has an outsize amount of power over a defendant’s fate: prosecutors. Just as we take phrases like “user agreement update” or “Tyler Perry presents” for granted, Oliver argues that “prosecutors will decide” has become such a common refrain in local news stories that you may not seriously consider what it means, even though it’s actually pretty important.

Not only can prosecutors determine whether to bring charges against a person, they can also pressure even innocent people to accept plea bargains to avoid the prospect of a harsher sentence from a judge or jury if wrongfully convicted. And if a defendant does choose to go to trial instead, prosecutors have a number of tactics to influence the outcome, including manipulating jury selection and withholding evidence that might help the defendant’s case from the other side.

“Prosecutors typically get to decide whether something is relevant to the defense, which seems inherently flawed,” said Oliver. “You can’t just count on an adversary to voluntarily expose all of their weaknesses. In Star Wars, the rebels had to steal the Death Star plans. The Empire didn’t just email it to them with the subject line FWD: GIANT STUPID WEAK SPOT (VERY DUMB, GO TO TOWN).”

Many local district attorneys are elected officials, and the majority run unopposed, making it important for citizens to stay aware of who is enforcing the law in their area, and how. “Most people know as much about their local DA as they do about their local Cheesecake Factory manager,” said Oliver. “Chances are you don’t know who they are, and if you do, it’s probably because something truly terrible has happened. But the truth is, like the Cheesecake Factory, prosecutors have the ability to ruin lives in a second.”