During its 2020 session, the Missouri General Assembly considered expanding the powers of the office of the state attorney general. The proposed law would have allowed the attorney general to file criminal charges with original and concurrent jurisdiction in Missouri’s counties and would have subverted local control over the administration of justice.
All 115 members of MAPA, the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, were unified in our opposition to the proposal. The Missouri House of Representatives passed the bill, but when the state Senate was given the opportunity to do likewise, its members declined. Instead, state senators affirmed the established principle that criminal prosecution in Missouri is best conducted by those of us elected in our communities to try the accused and pursue justice for victims.
When absolute and irrefutable evidence of an obvious crime justifies prosecution, the job requires no specific legal talent. However, this is not always true.
In every case, prosecutors must judiciously review the statutes and use their discretion to determine which violations of the law are most applicable to the facts and evidence available to them. They must support the investigations of police, prepare witnesses for court, select juries and present every single case in a way that jurors will best understand. To win a conviction and provide justice to victims requires local familiarity and a connection to the community.
The constitutional authority to deprive a person of life and liberty is such an awesome power that not only must prosecutors handle it with great care, but the people themselves must decide which lawyers in their communities they trust to wield it. They vet us during our electoral campaigns. They gauge our commitment to maintaining the peace and the severity with which we’ll pursue punishment for criminals who disturb it. They weigh our character up close and decide for themselves whether they trust us to do right by them. And if we fail them, they hold us accountable.
In Cedar County, we’ve honored the faith the voters have placed in our office. We don’t shy away from prosecuting those who commit crimes. Since I took office as prosecuting attorney, we’ve filed more than 5,500 criminal charges, with more than 700 in 2020. We’ve won convictions that removed violent people from our community, including one who killed a police officer. Those who violate the safety and well-being of our community don’t escape retribution.
Nonetheless, we prosecutors cannot allow our zeal to overwhelm our discretion. We must be reasonably certain that an allegation of wrongdoing is supported by sufficient evidence and does in fact constitute a misdemeanor or a felonious act. Public opinion has a power of its own, and the moment prosecutors file a criminal complaint, we establish a record that will alter the reputation of the accused. Having been specifically chosen by our communities to serve their interest in justice, they often believe us when we call someone a criminal. It is unjust and dangerous to wittingly and casually brand a person with that label when we cannot prove it to be true beyond a reasonable doubt.
Complex crimes are not a common occurrence in rural counties. As such, local budgets don’t anticipate the level of funding necessary to prosecute them. Cases that present a large volume of evidence covering many years, having multiple witnesses or defendants, and with unusual circumstances may require additional staff to review the evidence in order to fully investigate the case. In instances when prosecutors believe more resources are needed than what is locally available, they may request the governor’s office to direct the office of the attorney general to assist in a case. The attorney general’s office has funds to cover travel expenses for out-of-state victims and witnesses, as well as the costs of forensic experts.
However, in no way does a request for the involvement of the attorney general in a local matter constitute an abdication of authority by the county prosecutor’s office. This principle was reiterated last year when the General Assembly rebuffed the latest attempts to undermine the independence of local prosecutors. The legislature affirmed, as it has done many times before, that for victims and their families the best hope for justice lies in the hands of local prosecutors.
In Cedar County, every member of the prosecutor’s office will continue to fight for the safety and well-being of the community in which we live. We appreciate the assistance the attorney general has recently provided us in criminal matters that have tested the capacity of our own resources, but we will continue to respect the law and assert local control over the prosecution of all criminal charges filed in this jurisdiction.
Ty Gaither is the prosecuting attorney for Cedar County, Missouri. He is currently serving his second term in office.