Prosecutorial Overreach: Not Just a Trump Problem


This piece was contributed by a guest columnist and therefore only represents the views of the author. Contributed columns do not necessarily reflect the views of Empower Mississippi.


Donald Trump is a convicted felon. Whether one likes that fact or not, the former president now joins millions of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Mississippians who are likewise convicted felons.  

Trump’s conviction was no doubt the source of an overreaching, overzealous District  Attorney, Alvin Bragg. As a father of a high school cheerleader, I have seen many cartwheels and back-handsprings, but my daughter’s maneuvers pale in comparison to the legal gymnastics Bragg and his team used to convict Trump. Bragg’s actions are a prime example of the need for criminal justice reform.  

Many are upset following this recent trial, and they should be. A system where even one rogue prosecutor can deploy questionable legal tactics to convict a political rival calls into question the fairness and legitimacy of the system itself. Whether a former president or a citizen of Alcorn County, Americans should be protected from prosecutorial overreach. Unfortunately, we see similar situations unfold throughout Mississippi daily. If you’re mad about what happened to Trump, you should be equally outraged at what routinely happens to Mississippi citizens.  

Strengthening Mississippi’s public defender system would be a step in the right direction. Public defenders play a critical role in protecting the rights of the accused, particularly those who can’t afford an attorney. While Trump had a team of high-powered attorneys defending him in court and was still convicted of these bogus charges, many Mississippians who are accused of crimes can’t even afford an attorney. That’s where public defenders step in. The presumption of innocence is one of our country’s foundational legal principles, and public defenders stand between overzealous prosecutors and an easy, sometimes unjust, conviction.  

Throughout my career as a lawyer practicing primarily criminal defense, I have appeared in every circuit district in this state. More often than not, I have found that prosecutors work hard and seek an amicable resolution for the cases before the court. They take pride in their jobs, and I believe many earnestly seek to perform their tasks with merit and honor. However, they also have vast resources that stack the deck in their favor. 

Mississippi has twenty-three circuit districts. Each district has a district attorney’s office that is staffed with multiple assistant district attorneys, investigators, victim coordinators and other staff. This past legislative session the legislature appropriated $31,554,631.00, to fund our state’s prosecutors. 

In addition, these prosecutors are often very organized and have the full force of the State of Mississippi and its resources at their disposal. Comparatively, public defenders in Mississippi are often under-resourced and wholly disorganized. There is no uniform set of standards for public defenders nor is there a statewide system of public defense in Mississippi. Only 7 of 82 counties have full-time public defender offices. Even establishing a set of minimum standards for public defense would help.  

As in Trump’s case, the power given to our district attorneys creates an unlevel playing field for those charged with a crime. Often, criminal defendants are leveraged into taking a plea deal regardless of their guilt. 

Perhaps the most heinous injustice comes as a result of the “dead zone”. Under Mississippi law a person is not entitled to a court-appointed attorney until arraignment, which in some cases may be months after the initial arrest. This can result in an indigent defendant sitting in jail for months on end, on the taxpayers’ dime, before their trial even begins. The Mississippi Supreme Court attempted to fix this with the promulgation of a rule mandating continuity of representation beginning at the arrest of the defendant. However, this rule is only being applied sporadically.  

One of the criticisms of the Trump case has been the unchecked prosecutorial power of the New York DA. The same truth applies here in Mississippi. I am always amazed at how two similarly situated defendants can receive diametrically different outcomes. The reason? A lack of prosecutorial oversight. Prosecutors have a wide degree of discretion. For the most part, they can choose who and how they prosecute. The district attorney’s office is the only state agency that I am aware of the does not have uniform policies.  A statewide public defender’s system would not do away with this discretion, but it would lessen its impact. 

Though our prosecutors may not have the nefarious intent of Alvin Bragg and his ilk, they do use their vast resources to more often than not get the results they want. This should concern all of us.  

There is an old legal maxim that provides that the rule of law should be a shield and not a sword. That we, American citizens, have the fundamental right to be protected from the tentacles of an over-zealous government. Though it is true that Trump’s conviction shows that no one is above the law (as no one should be), it also shows that anyone can be pierced by the sharpened tip of a prosecutor’s sword.