September-October 2012

Why do we prosecutors do what we do?

William Lee Hon

Criminal District Attorney in Polk County

Last week I had an opportunity to speak to a group of high school students attending Criminal Justice Camp at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville. The students were hearing presentations from law enforcement and criminal justice professionals from a variety of agencies and disciplines. I, of course, had the privilege of discussing with them what a career as a prosecuting attorney might entail.

    If I haven’t mentioned it in an earlier column, I’ll just note that I received my bachelor’s degree in Criminology and Corrections from Sam Houston State University way back in 1987. It’s always fun for me to go back to the George Beto Criminal Justice Center on campus and remember back to what it was like in undergraduate school. That was a fun time in my life. I actually didn’t go to Sam Houston with the intention of majoring in criminal justice. In fact, I began as an agriculture major but, not unlike many college students, I wasn’t entirely sure that was the career that I truly wanted to pursue. In the summer after my first year of college, I took a course named Introduction to the Criminal Justice System that was taught by the late Dr. Billy Bramlett. I learned about different components of the criminal justice system, different theories of crime and punishment, general defenses to criminal responsibility, and different types of culpable mental states. To say I was hooked would be an understatement. I came back for the second part of that introductory class during the second summer session and decided after that to change my major. The rest, as they say, is history.

    I mention this because some members of the media have very publically begun to question the motives of prosecuting attorneys. In some corners, we have been portrayed as “power-hungry” lawyers with a “God complex” who are solely motivated by a desire to win the cases we prosecute at all costs. I’m not sure about other prosecuting attorneys and can only speak for myself; however, I can honestly say that my own personal motivation for being a professional prosecutor stems from a genuine fascination with and interest in better understanding why people do bad things, a desire to correct bad behavior if possible, and wanting to reduce the incidence of people doing bad things to themselves and others. I think this actually relates all the way back to my undergraduate experience and interest in the criminological theories and concepts I learned at Sam Houston. Yes, I was one of the rare individuals who actually stumbled into a major and got it right.

    So what is it about crime in society that makes our jobs so interesting? Aside from the fact that the stuff we deal with on a daily basis has a tendency to also wind up on the six o’clock news or in the daily police report in our local newspapers, crime and punishment have captured the public attention and imagination going all the way back to the Book of Genesis in the Bible and the story of Cain and Abel. For me personally, I remember reading Blood and Money by Thomas Thompson when I was still in high school. For those of you who’ve never read that book, you need to get your hands on it. Blood and Money is the story of the suspicious 1969 death of Houston socialite Joan Robinson Hill and the 1972 murder of her husband, Houston plastic surgeon John Hill. (You can Google “Joan Robinson Hill” and read all about it on the Internet.) A movie about the case starring Farrah Fawcett was made a number of years ago. To this day, that case remains one of the most sensational real-life crime dramas in the history of Houston, and the book is a real page-turner. My point in mentioning it is that the public eats that sort of thing up. It’s the stuff of made-for-TV movies. People have an almost morbid fascination with criminal behavior. Don’t believe me? As I type this column we are now in our third week of intensive media coverage of the movie theater shootings in Aurora, Colorado. As prosecuting attorneys, that is our life.

    Although I hope that none of us ever have to deal with a mass murder of that magnitude, we do, on a not-infrequent basis, get to see the absolute worst aspects of human behavior. We get to see things that your average accountant, dentist, and civil lawyer can relate to based only upon what they see or read in the media. We get all the details. That’s why when we go to civic clubs, cocktail parties, and other social gatherings people want to hear our “war stories.” When I finished my presentation at Sam Houston last week and invited questions from the students, one of their first requests was, “Tell us about the most memorable case you’ve ever prosecuted.” (My response, of course, involved a fairly lengthy discussion of the never-ending saga of Johnny Paul Penry.) You’ve all had questions asked of you like that, I bet.

    Sure, I’m “just a lawyer,” but I’ve been to major crime scenes. I’ve been to autopsies. I’ve seen the gruesome photographs (all of them, not just the ones that the judge allows into evidence). I’ve received daily brief-ings on the progress of major criminal investigations in my county. At the end of the day, I get to walk into a court of law and present that information through witnesses and exhibits to a jury comprised of 12 citizens of Polk County to obtain justice in a criminal case. How many of your law school classmates are able to describe their jobs in that fashion? I get to see a side of humanity that only other prosecutors and criminal justice practitioners can understand and appreciate.

    I’m sure there are plenty of other professions where you have to build a wall between your job and your personal life, but I’m not sure there are many other jobs where people in your personal life have such an interest and fascination with what you keep behind that professional wall. It does bother me a little at times that there is this whole part of my life that my family and non-criminal justice friends can never truly understand—but that’s the nature of what we do. The side of humanity we see on a daily basis impacts our lives in other ways too. It causes us to be more careful about how we live our lives. It causes us to be sometimes overprotective of our kids. It causes us to stay out of certain neighborhoods and be more cognizant of crime rates in areas where we might consider living. These are just a few of the collateral consequences of the career path we have chosen.

    It’s been 27 years now since I took that first Introduction to the Criminal Justice System class at Sam Houston State. Little did I know or realize at the time how fully immersed I would become into the “business” of people doing bad things. With that said, there’s hardly a day that goes by that I don’t think about or wonder why some person that I’m prosecuting made the choices that he or she made. It’s still fascinating. As a prosecutor who still loves the courtroom, I think it’s nearly as important to be able to show why someone committed a crime as it is to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant on trial actually committed the crime. I think jurors want to know and understand why something bad happened as best they can.

    I’m not sure it’s possible to understand or explain this public fascination with criminal behavior. But as a criminal prosecutor, I know that I’m uniquely positioned and fortunate to be in a profession that remains genuinely interesting to me every day. It’s not a power thing or an ego thing for me. It just stems from something deep within that I find challenging in terms of trying to understand why people do the things they do. Perhaps I could have been a forensic psychologist and had an equally rewarding and interesting career, but I doubt it. In my position as a prosecutor for the State of Texas, I get to see our criminal justice system from every conceivable angle. I don’t think I’d trade that for anything in the world.