November-December 2017

In court, The Best Story Wins

Tommy Ashworth

Assistant Criminal District Attorney in Collin County

The Best Story Wins is a collection of lessons, war stories, and cautionary tales for prosecutors by veteran Tennessee prosecutor John Bobo. Although subtitled “and other advice to new prosecutors,” Bobo’s wisdom will speak volumes to prosecutors at every level. The book touches on nearly every aspect of a prosecutor’s job, from negotiating with defense attorneys and working with judges, to managing relationships with law enforcement.
    I was first introduced to this book by a well-respected prosecutor who hailed it as the single most important book for anyone in our profession. At the time, I was seven years into my career as a prosecutor and beginning to feel burned out. I found Bobo’s book to be inspiring, funny, and relatable as it reminded me that the problems I faced were ubiquitous in our profession. This is the kind of book that should be kept on all of our shelves to be revisited when we need inspiration or a simple reminder of what a privilege it is to be a prosecutor. Beyond that, Bobo gives us textbook-style advice and practical tips to use in trials and dockets.
    The Best Story Wins is broken down into sections that can be read independently, almost like a reference book for handling the myriad challenges that any prosecutor faces. In an early chapter titled “Being a Prosecutor,” Bobo puts the profession in perspective: “Being a prosecutor is heady stuff. Mention your job title and everyone’s posture suddenly improves. All your phone calls are returned. People’s lives are affected by your decisions and actions. For any normal person, it would be hard not to believe it had something to do with himself. But the truth is your position causes those things—not you.” Had I been lucky enough to be exposed to this and other pearls of wisdom as a baby prosecutor, there’s at least a chance I might have toned down the hubris that plagues so many of us early in our careers. Experienced prosecutors reading this book will often find themselves saying, “If I’d only known that when I started.”
    Bobo draws on experience from a wide array of sources, including other long-time prosecutors, the United States Supreme Court, and Abraham Lincoln, who tells us, “I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.” Quotes like these are peppered throughout the work—a reader prone to highlighting will find himself with entire pages covered in yellow. Bobo shifts seamlessly from those points that should be (but are often not) obvious to each of us (“You are the person who chooses what cases go to trial”) to deeper reflections on who we are as people (“The greatest trap of a trial lawyer is not to be themselves and become a slave to the judgments of how others believe they should try a case”).
    As the head of our office’s misdemeanor division, much of my time is dedicated to training our new lawyers. The Best Story Wins is overflowing with little lessons that can be expanded into broader training topics. For example, Bobo tells us to “set victims’ expectations early and often.” I’ll use something simple like that to draw upon my own successes and failures, and before I know it I have got an extremely beneficial training segment on working with crime victims.
    It goes without saying that any prosecutor worth his salt knows that he is better served to borrow from others rather than to re-invent the wheel. There’s almost no problem out there that hasn’t already been solved by those who came before us. To the knowledge thieves among us, The Best Story Wins is absolutely invaluable.