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As charges loom over Trump, prosecutors come under fire – a criminal justice expert explains what's at stake

Jessica S. Henry, Professor, Department of Justice Studies, Montclair State University, The Conversation on

Published in News & Features

Former President Donald Trump held his first presidential campaign events on Jan. 28, 2023, against the heavy backdrop of four major criminal investigations into his behavior while in and out of office.

In the lead-up to his campaign launch, Trump personally attacked prosecutors and the investigations they are leading as politically biased and a “hoax.”

“These prosecutors are vicious, horrible people, they’re racists and they’re very sick, they’re mentally sick. They’re going after me without any protection of my rights by the Supreme Court, or most other courts,” Trump said in January 2022of New York Attorney General Letitia James and Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, both of whom are Black. Bragg is reportedly approaching a decision about whether to charge Trump with illegally paying money to silence porn actress Stormy Daniels about their relationship.

Trump has also called other Black prosecutors investigating him – including Fani Willis, the Fulton County district attorney leading an inquiry into his interference with the 2020 election results in Georgia – “racist.” Willis has said that she requires extensive personal security following death threats from Trump supporters.

This public castigation is helping elevate prosecutors, who typically hold fairly low profiles, into the national spotlight.

The Conversation spoke with Jessica S. Henry, a criminal justice expert at Montclair State University, to help navigate the role of prosecutors and the potential risks of making their positions fair game on the presidential election circuit.


What role do prosecutors serve in the justice system in the US?

Prosecutors are among the most powerful figures in the courthouse. They are the people who decide whether to bring charges, what charges to bring, whether to negotiate a plea bargain and what those terms would be. Very few criminal cases ever go to trial. And so prosecutors wield tremendous power.

Are these posts typically considered political?

Electoral politics have always been part of the backdrop of prosecution. District attorneys – the top prosecutors in a state – are elected in 45 states. And in contested elections, the rhetoric is typically about who is the toughest on crime. Prosecutors who can prove that they’re the toughest typically win. Tough, in these terms, is defined as getting convictions and securing long sentences.


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