I recently had the opportunity to return to the courtroom. It was just as exhilarating as it’s always been. My co-counsel and I dug in for a five-day jury trial involving several felony offenses. We gave it our all, and then we waited. I wish I could say that prosecutors wait excitedly for a verdict, but as you can imagine, it can be an anxious time. Will the jury have follow up questions? Will the verdict take a day, multiple days, or even a week or longer? From the time the prosecution rests, to the time we are summoned for a decision, I have to remind myself that it’s the path to justice that should matter most, not the ultimate outcome.
Maybe you have seen some of our ultimate outcomes … Facebook posts or press releases highlighting victories we’ve had in court. While those victories are obviously significant and important, sometimes the cases we fight for don’t always end in our favor. As I tell my staff though, it is the path to justice — the fight — that matters most. That fight is not easy. Sometimes, a prosecutor is the first person to stand up for a victim. Sometimes the prosecutor is the first person to tell the offender no, and sometimes, a prosecutor is the last line of defense between an innocent child and neglectful parent.
Don’t get me wrong, a not guilty verdict is about as devastating as it can get for a prosecutor who put their heart and soul into a case, who spent endless hours away from their families and with victims and law enforcement preparing for court. Time and experience, though, teach us that as prosecutors, we’ve already won once we step into the courtroom, ready to fight for victims, for children, and for the safety of our community.
My recent jury trial reminded me of all these things … and a few others. Like, for instance, I am older than I was the last time I did a five-day jury trial. Getting two hours sleep and performing my role as wife and mother made for one tired prosecutor, but I wouldn’t have it any other way! And with modern technology, I didn’t miss a single bedtime! Also, being in the courtroom reminds me that our justice system is the best in the world. We are all lucky to live in a society that values evidence and not bias or prejudice. And, as with the outcome of my recent trial, I’m reminded that our pursuit of justice may not always end in a guilty verdict.
While that’s a hard truth, I’m okay with it. There is an old adage you might hear if you hang around prosecutors long enough. It goes like this: If you win all your trials, you aren’t trying enough cases. As difficult as it is to get a not guilty verdict, I do agree with that old adage. The decision regarding guilt isn’t mine. It is the jury’s decision. I’m also reminded that “not guilty” doesn’t mean innocent. Not guilty simply means there wasn’t enough evidence to convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. This is the highest standard of proof in the land, as it should be.
I’m reminded that a verdict is a ruling. It is not the total picture of justice. Justice is never defined by the outcome, but rather, the fight to get there. I am proud to fight the fight. I am proud of my assistant prosecutors who go into court every day, battling for justice. I am proud to stand with law enforcement in their efforts to protect our community. No matter if a ruling goes our way or not, we will continue on that path to justice, fighting for each and every victim, each and every time.
Melissa A. Schiffel is Delaware County prosecutor.