Today we welcome to the blog Micki Browning, a veteran police officer, now retired and spinning tales of murder and mayhem in Colorado and the Florida Keys, sharing her perspective of the critical relationships between police officers, prosecutors, and defense counsel. Welcome, Micki!
Conflict in the Courtroom: Cops & Counselors
Cops and counselors work together on a regular basis. How well they get along is often determined by which table the attorney sits at in the courtroom. Sometimes only inches separate the tables, but the span is often insurmountable. While I’m fairly certain there are at least a few amiable defense lawyers in this world, you’d be hard pressed to find an officer who will admit to meeting one. So why the disparity? After all, attorneys practicing criminal law all use the same playbook. To be fair, everyone is striving for justice, yet from a cop’s perspective, defense attorneys have a huge PR problem. They’re batting for the wrong team.
You see, police officers form strong relationships with prosecutors based on mutual respect. This camaraderie is forged through the shared goal of ridding the streets of ne’er-do-wells. Sometimes, the lead investigator will share the prosecutor’s table and act as an advisor throughout the trial. Heck, sometimes they’ll even discuss the case over drinks, or a pickup game of basketball, or at the Fourth of July picnic.
They become friends.
An Adversarial System
The United States judicial system is adversarial. Defense attorneys make their living defending the same person the cop went to a great deal of trouble to arrest. This creates a philosophical difference of opinion about the character of the accused and the merits of the case. Officers don’t arrest innocent people. Or so they’d like to think. Does it happen? Absolutely. Does it change how we think of the defense team? Not a whit. If a cop and a defense attorney drink together, someone’s about to sip arsenic, their pickup game will end in sudden death, and the only reason to show up to the Fourth of July picnic is because there was a noise complaint and the officer is on-duty.
While most officers believe that defense attorneys inhabit a tenth ring not envisioned by Dante, occasionally, even a prosecutor fans the flames. Law enforcement investigators present their cases to the prosecutor’s office when they feel it is a complete package— a conclusion not always shared by the prosecutor. This disparate perspective often arises from standards that are triggered at various phases of an investigation. For example, an officer only needs probable cause to believe a person committed a crime in order to make an arrest or pursue a warrant. But to secure a conviction, the prosecutor must present a case that demonstrates beyond a reasonable doubt that the person did the dirty deed. Big difference—and one that can foster animosity between an officer who knows said knucklehead did wrong, and a prosecutor who may agree, but can’t prove it.
Evidence Is Not Truth
Despite what cops, attorneys and expert witnesses claim, evidence, on its own, is not truth. Evidence supports or undermines an argument. There is rarely a smoking gun and instead, evidence is pieced together until a reasonable conclusion can be drawn. Police officers testify to what they observed, the actions they took, and the items they gathered. I’ve presented evidence that has helped both the prosecution and the defense in the same trial. My job is to present the facts without embellishment or bias. It is the prosecutor’s job to build it up, and the defense attorney’s task to tear it down. One way the defense team attacks the validity of evidence is to attack the credibility of the officer presenting it. It’s hard to leave a courtroom feeling warm fuzzies for an attorney who just tried to convince the jury that you are an unprofessional nincompoop.
Crime and Punishment
Call it petty, but when the defense prevails, a cop’s first thought is that a miscarriage of justice took place, not that his or her own lack of preparation or investigation played a part. Truth is, it’s difficult to obtain a conviction. A key piece of evidence at trial may be been overlooked at the initial investigation, witnesses recant, juries are fickle and media coverage can sway perception.
What’s this mean for your writing? Everyone in a courtroom can feel righteous, but not everyone can be right. Opportunities for conflict abound. After all, it’s an adversarial system.
MICKI BROWNING, an FBI National Academy graduate, worked in law enforcement for over two decades. She retired as a division commander leading the investigations, internal affairs, and training bureaus. She’s a member of Sisters in Crime and active in the Guppies chapter.
Excellent article, Micki. As we speak, my character, Aggie Mundeen, has been arrested for a crime she didn’t commit. Evidence against her looks pretty solid, though. To make matters worse, her love interest is a cop.
I’ll probably end up paraphrasing some of what you wrote.
I’m so glad you found the article helpful. The dynamic between these two groups of professionals is always *ahem* interesting. That said, some of my best friends are attorneys, I just try not to let that get around. I have a reputation to protect…
Oh, and paraphrase away! Best of luck on your work in progress.
So glad Micki’s insights are giving you ideas, Nancy!
These insights are so helpful for writers who are looking to add realism and depth to their novels or short stories. It’s especially important to note that either side can appear sympathetic and rarely are cases black and white. It’s the nuances on both sides of the courtroom (and yes, the adversarial relationship between defense and prosecution) that can lead to a multi-layered rather than flat and trite treatment. Thanks for the look behind the scenes, Micki.
Thanks, Mandy. I’m glad you found the insight helpful.
I think we have the best judicial system in the world. Unfortunately, like any other large system, it has its flaws. It is also very confusing for the uninitiated (and some who should know better -based on the occasional shenanigans I’ve witnessed in the courtroom). The important thing for writers to remember is that the legal system is populated with people, and everyone has their foibles, their biases and their opinions. Their is truly conflict in every encounter! What will you make of it?
Aack. That moment when you spot the wrong there/their/they’re and your finger has already hit “post.”
…which brings up report writing, and how grammar and word choice reflect on credibility.
I didn’t even spot it!
And since we’re writers here, how do we use that inherent tension to add another layer — or a surprise — to our stories?
Great post. I’ve spent most of my working life in law offices as a trusts and estates paralegal which has lead to some involvement with criminal cases. The intricacies of the investigative work and the ratcheting tension are fascinating. You both present and explain this well. I use the investigative tension in my current WIP as my heroine is caught between two attorneys in a Will contest and the result can let a murderer go free.
The connection between criminal and civil litigation offers so much story opportunity! Thanks for the comment, Kait.
Even people on the same side often have differences of opinion when it comes to a specific case. How much weight is attached to evidence is sometimes a function of how the attorney presents it.
What always made my jaw drop was how bitterly two attorneys could go at each other in court, and then watching them joke together in the outside hallway.
Altruism aside, at the end of the day, it’s still a job. That alone can lead to wonderful character development.
A big THANKS to Micki Browning for sharing her perspective, and to all of you for stopping by. Now take what you’ve learned and all those ideas for ratcheting up the conflict in your stories and get back to work!