The Role of a Prosecutor

Prosecutors are unique in that they have both powers and duties that other lawyers do not. This does not mean prosecutors are any better or worse than other lawyers, but it does result in many misconceptions about the prosecutor’s role in the criminal justice system. The quotations contained on this page are intended to shed some light on this role.

“The duty of a public prosecutor or other government lawyer is to seek justice, not merely to convict.”
Rule 3.8(a) of the Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct


“The United States Attorney [a prosecutor in Federal Court] is the representative not of an ordinary party to a controversy, but of a sovereignty whose obligation to govern impartially is as compelling as its obligation to govern at all; and whose interest, therefore, in a criminal prosecution is not that it shall win a case, but that justice shall be done. As such, he is in a peculiar and very definite sense the servant of the law, the twofold aim of which is that guilt shall not escape or innocence suffer. He may prosecute with earnestness and vigor – indeed, he should do so. But, while he may strike hard blows, he is not at liberty to strike foul ones. It is as much his duty to refrain from improper methods calculated to produce a wrongful conviction as it is to use every legitimate means to bring about a just one.”
Berger v. United States, 295 U.S. 78, 88 (1935) (bracketed material added)


“The qualities of a good prosecutor are as elusive and as impossible to define as those which make a gentleman. And those who need to be told would not understand it anyway. A sensitiveness to fair play and sportsmanship is perhaps the best protection against the abuse of power, and the citizens safety lies in the prosecutor who tempers zeal with human kindness, who seeks truth and not victims, who serves the law and not factional purposes, and who approaches his task with humility.”
United States Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, April 1, 1940


“While a not guilty finding is sometimes equated with a finding of innocence, that conclusion is erroneous. Courts do not find people guilty or innocent. They find them guilty or not guilty. A not guilty verdict expresses no view as to a defendant’s innocence. Rather, it indicates simply that the prosecution has failed to meet its burden of proof. While there are those who may criticize courts for turning criminals loose, courts have a duty to ensure that all citizens receive those rights which are applicable equally to every citizen who may find himself charged with a crime, whatever the crime and whatever the circumstances. When the State cannot meet its burden of proof, the defendant must go free.”
People v Smith, 185 Ill.2d 532, 545 (1999)