A prosecutor has more power in a lot of ways than a judge does. Although the judge presides over the courtroom and makes decisions on what evidence will be allowed in front of the jury, it is the prosecutor and the prosecutor alone who gets to decide when to drop charges based upon a lack of competent evidence. As a former prosecutor, I had this happen more times than I can count. A prosecutor receives a packet of police reports, witness statements, and other evidence and has to decide based upon this when to charge someone with a crime. Once that decision is made, the case doesn’t stop there. There is often a lengthy process of what is called discovery, where the defense attorneys have the ability to examine the evidence and question witnesses under oath in what is called a deposition. Sometimes, during this process, a prosecutor finds out information about the case that wasn’t known at the outset. Sometimes he may find out that a witness lied, or that a scientific test came back negative (such as DNA). A whole host of things can happen to make what initially seemed like a strong case a weak one.
When that happens, the prosecutor gets to reevaluate the charges. He can drop charges outright (which is called nolle prosse) or he can change the charges at any time prior to the trial. When a prosecutor finds out that his case is based on bad evidence, the responsible thing to do is to drop the case. This isn’t always the popular thing to do, particularly where there is a person who was victimized who wants to see someone get punished. But, the right person should be punished. A prosecutor’s job isn’t to win and convict people, it’s to do justice. Sometimes that means having the foresight to realize that the evidence is weak and the charges should be dropped.
Such is the case of Jeremy Patri, who was charged with battery in a November 2009 incident in Palm Beach Gardens. Patri and a co-defendant, Joseph Fusco, were accused by eye-witnesses of a beating that ultimately resulted in the victim having a skull fracture, bleeding in the brain, and permanent hearing loss. However, it was later learned that Fusco was actually out of state at the time of the assault. When he presented his alibi, prosecutors dropped the charges against him. But instead of also dropping the charges against Patri, they merely downgraded the charges from attempted murder and aggravated battery to two counts of misdemeanor battery. The seriousness of the injuries certainly would have amounted to felony battery at the very least. Based upon this decision, it seems clear that prosecutors recognized the weakness of their case, that the only evidence against Patri was his identification by eyewitnesses who were already proven wrong about the other guy.
Nonetheless, the prosecutors did not drop the charges. They offered Patri a plea deal of probation. Asserting his innocence, Patri declined and demanded his day in court. At trial, prosecutors called the eyewitnesses. Police officers who were on scene that night also testified. Their testimony was that Patri was certainly present after the beating – but in their opinion, he wasn’t involved. He had no blood on him and nothing else indicated to them that he had been one of the attackers.
When even the police don’t think the defendant did it, perhaps that’s a case that shouldn’t have gone to trial? Prosecutors need to keep in mind that their ultimate responsibility is to do justice. They don’t represent the victims, they represent the people of the state of Florida. It was the people, the jurors, who in the end found Patri not guilty. But the bigger question is whether or not the case ever should have gone that far to begin with.