Q: The news media heavily covered a local crime, but the prosecutor wouldn’t comment. Why not?
A: When a major crime goes to trial in Ohio, the county prosecutor will lead the effort to prosecute. Prosecutors are elected Ohio officials, charged with the distinct and challenging duty to seek justice while keeping the public informed. When a local prosecutor declines to comment on a criminal case, it is more than a personal decision to keep the information to a minimum; it is also a rule of professional conduct in Ohio.
All Ohio lawyers must abide by the Ohio Rules of Professional Conduct. Violations may lead to sanctions, including disbarment. The rules limit what lawyers can and cannot say leading up to a trial in order to safeguard the accused’s right to a fair trial. Potential jurors could be tainted by a public statement of counsel, and the rules are designed to prevent jurors from learning any information that may impair their ability to be fair and impartial.
Q: Isn’t the prosecutor’s main duty to convict criminals?
A: No. The prosecutor’s main duty is to seek justice. Unlike a defense attorney, who represents a specific client, the prosecutor must make decisions affecting the public interest as a whole. This means that the prosecutor has the duty to prosecute those who the prosecutor believes are guilty of committing crimes while also ensuring that the proceedings are fair and that justice is served. Sometimes this means the prosecutor will drop or reduce the charges if the prosecutor believes the suspect is innocent or there is insufficient evidence of guilt.
Q: What kinds of information can the prosecutor give to news reporters before a trial?
A: Before and during a trial, a prosecutor can give media information that is in the public record—information that citizens could obtain for themselves. According to the Ohio Rules of Professional Conduct, other information the prosecutor may provide to media includes:
• the identity, address and occupation of the suspect;
• information that could be helpful in finding a suspect who has not been located or has escaped from authorities;
• warnings to the public if the suspect is loose and is believed to be a serious threat to the safety of others;
• a plea to the public for any information that may assist in the conviction of a defendant.
Q: What are prosecutors prohibited from telling the press before a trial?
A: Prosecutors should not:
• comment on the character, credibility, reputation or prior criminal record of a suspect or witness before the trial;
• comment on any potential guilty plea before it occurs;
• disclose the results of any tests or examinations given to the suspect or conducted on the evidence to be presented, or the refusal or failure of a person to submit to a test or examination;
• relate any confessions or other statements by the suspect to police;
• comment on the guilt or innocence of a suspect;
• Discuss evidence that they know will not be admissible in court.
This “Law You Can Use” column was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association. It was prepared by Summit County Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh and Columbus attorney Dan Trevas.