Students received a first-hand look at prosecutorial duties on Tuesday from Joel Williams, Elkhart County chief deputy prosecuting attorney and Notre Dame Law School adjunct faculty member.
Williams discussed how he manages relations with local police departments and how he handles grand jury proceedings. He centered his discussion around the real-world example of the shooting death of Norman Gary, an African American man, at the hands of two white Elkhart Police officers in October.
The tensions in Elkhart County grew during grand jury proceedings in March. Residents protested in Goshen at the Elkhart County Courthouse. The grand jury did not indict the two officers.
During the investigation and grand jury proceedings, Williams had to work with local law enforcement to be able to accurately portray what happened during the shooting. Prosecution can be frustrating when the general public is informed by media that doesn’t — and can’t, by the nature of it — have the full facts of a case before a court proceeding, he said.
The job of the prosecutor differs from law enforcement because of how much you have to prove; prosecution requires a higher standard than an arrest. Prosecutors don’t press charges if they do not think they have a reasonable likelihood of conviction, he said.
“When I go to trial, I’ve got to get an A on the exam every time,” he said. “My thought process is, and yours should be: when I’m in trial in six months or a year, can I get a conviction?”
Williams quoted the 2002 Spiderman film, when Peter Parker said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” The students laughed.
“It’s hokey but it’s absolutely true,” he said.“As a prosecutor, you have to understand that what you do for a living is hold people accountable for their actions, which many times results in putting people in cages. As a prosecutor, you are many times taking away from a person what is most precious: liberty,” Williams said. It’s a serious job, and also a necessary one for society.
He told students they should consider an office’s reputation and relationship with local law enforcement agencies when looking for a potential place of employment. What you want most as a prosecutor is a good working relationship with law enforcement that leads to thorough investigation and preparation ahead of a trial, he said.
For example, police officers may write a report for an incident that results in charging a person with a criminal offense and not think about the case for six months to a year before it goes to trial. If the officer is called to testify in the case, the officer may not remember details, or their reports may not have enough details in the first place. This makes prosecuting a case hard. A good working relationship with law enforcement — including the ability to inform officers on what information they need for a case — makes prosecution easier, Williams said.
Students asked Williams several questions, including how and when he decides to use a grand jury. They are not required in Indiana, but Elkhart County uses them in all officer-involved shootings, he said, in part to eliminate any concern of police misconduct.
A student asked Williams if he ever worries that a grand jury will indict someone that the evidence shows is innocent.
“You have to have confidence as a prosecutor that you present all the evidence and they will come to the right answer,” he answered.