By Alejandro Ocasio ‘23
The Erie County District Attorney’s Office was an unexpected place to find myself at the end of my first year of law school at University at Buffalo School of Law. However, this unexpected journey turned-out to be one of the most eye-opening and important experiences of my life.
It’s no secret that in 2021, police departments, prosecutor’s offices, and other law enforcement agencies nationwide have undergone unprecedented scrutiny. One need not look long on cable news to hear the countless stories of police misconduct, prosecutorial gamesmanship, and other related injustices associated with our criminal justice system. When I began law school, I was enthralled by the very nature of defense attorneys and the work they provided their clients. After having read Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson while an undergraduate, I had a view of our criminal justice system as this kind of one-sided malicious undertow of injustice, which consistently failed to promote the principles justice.
While I still believe that, as a nation, there is far more work to be done in terms of equal justice on a comprehensive geographic scale, the Erie County District Attorney’s Office opened my eyes to the realities of criminal prosecution, the problem with unfair prejudice against law enforcement, and most importantly, the victims whose stories are often forgotten or untold.
On July 23, 2021, I walked into a court room with a dozen Assistant District Attorneys who were all eagerly awaiting the jury’s verdict on an assault trial that left an innocent young boy with a fractured jaw, and a helpless woman with a missing tooth and other injuries. The defendant in question had walked into a Buffalo bodega and proceeded to blare racial epithets at the store clerk before striking the two victims in a fit of rage. In the days leading up to this verdict, the Erie County District Attorneys assigned to the case called witnesses and victims alike and, in a meticulous yet dramatic manner, assembled a sure fire and undeniable case against the defendant.
Over the course of the trial, the human aspect of our criminal justice system came to the forefront. Victims recounted what was likely one of the most difficult days of their lives, police officers gave a detailed and intimate perspective of how they view and respond to crime, and all the while, the prosecution and defense attorneys used rhetorical strategies to build a narrative most convincing and beneficial to their end goal.
It was over the course of this trial that I realized the issues of criminal justice and policing are not as cut-and-dried as the media would have you think. The reason this is that, despite what the media portray, people’s personalities, biases, and general backgrounds play an undeniably substantial role in the events which take place. In this case, unlike the enthralling and often one-sided stories shared by author Bryan Stevenson, the defendant awaiting the July 23rd verdict was convictable by clear video footage, and two very real harmed victims were on the other side of the defendant’s misconduct. Yet still, despite the clear and convincing evidence, the jury was having immense trouble finding a unanimous verdict of guilty. So much so that deliberations lasted for two days.
Was this really the unjust- and prejudice-filled criminal justice system I had heard so much about? A system that apparently convicts the innocent and preys on the weak? From everything I could discern from that day inside Judge Case’s court room on July 23rd, the exact opposite was true and playing out right before me. Here was a defendant, obviously guilty, who was being afforded virtually every benefit of the doubt. Competent counsel made arguments on his behalf, victim testimony and evidentiary materials were cross-examined, and the legitimacy and trustworthiness of all was put to the test. It became apparent to me on that day, that our system was not a “conviction machine.” Quite to the contrary, our system is a system by which conviction was only obtainable when the charges sought were provable not beyond a reasonable doubt, but rather with almost absolute certainty.
While the defendant was eventually convicted on July 23rd, having such an intimate and personal view of this trial opened my eyes to the reality of how our system actually functions, and the benefits afforded to defendants. While not perfect, at least in the State of New York and in the County of Erie, criminals are given a fair chance to dispute the allegations and charges made against them. On the other side, Assistant District Attorneys are fighting tooth and nail to serve justice for their victims—often while facing a mountain of favor provided to defendants.
While police misconduct certainly exists, and while it’s certain that our system of criminal justice is not sure-fire or perfect, it’s not the one-sided system that many political pundits suggest. While police misconduct exists, so too do the officers who respond properly, providing care, support and protection to helpless victims. While some prosecutors exist who have surely used unfair and tactics and gamesmanship, so too exist prosecutors who diligently and honorably serve justice for their communities.
In my own summation, our system is flawed insofar as people are flawed. Whether a prosecutor, police officer, defendant, or victim, each actor brings with them their own baggage and personalities. However, we should not be fooled into having a simplistic or one-sided view of the complex issues facing our criminal justice system.
Without the Hon. Dennis C. Vacco ’78 Summer Fellowship, I would likely be without these experiences that have reshaped me into the scholar of law that I am today as begin my second year of law school. To all those who made my experiences this summer possible, I extend my deepest appreciation and gratitude. I have emerged from this 12-week internship a better student, and one whose ultimate ambition has shifted to becoming a prosecutor.
Name: Alejandro Ocasio ‘23
Name of Fellowship: Hon. Dennis C. Vacco ’78 Summer Fellowship
Placement: Erie County District Attorney’s Office
Location: Buffalo, NY
One important lesson I have learned from this fellowship: “In my own summation, our system is flawed insofar as people are flawed. Whether a prosecutor, police officer, defendant, or victim, each actor brings with them their own baggage and personalities. However, we should not be fooled into having a simplistic or one-sided view of the complex issues facing our criminal justice system.”