What is a Prosecutor? - Definition & Meaning

Instructor: Millicent Kelly

Millicent has been teaching at the university level since 2004. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Criminal Justice and a Master's degree in Human Resources.

This lesson will explore the role and duties of a prosecutor in the criminal justice system. An overview of prosecutorial discretion and its relationship to the power of the prosecutor will also be discussed.

Prosecutor in the Spotlight

On June 12, 1994, the ex-wife of famous football star O.J. Simpson and her boyfriend were brutally murdered. Simpson was apprehended and charged with the murders. He was prosecuted by Marcia Clark, who quickly became a household name as she presented the people's case against Simpson on live television. Arguing the case in front of millions of people took a heavy toll, as Ms. Clark walked away from practicing law for over ten years after Simpson was acquitted.

Defining a Prosecutor

The prosecutor, also referred to as the district attorney, is a powerful elected official in the state judicial system. Marcia Clark was a prosecutor for the state of California at the time of the Simpson trial. At the federal level prosecutors are also utilized, but they are appointed by the president.

Prosecutors represent the people of the United States in criminal matters and decide when charges should be brought against a defendant, the person who stands accused of committing a crime. The office of the prosecutor has one chief elected prosecutor, and several assistant prosecutors who are hired professionals. The prosecutor has many roles and responsibilities in criminal proceedings.

These include the following:

  • Making a bail recommendation during the arraignment, or the defendant's first appearance before the court - Bail is a monetary security that provides for the release of the defendant from custody. The prosecutor may request that the amount of bail be set at a certain limit or may request that it be denied all together.

  • Entering into plea-bargaining discussions with the defense and defendant - This primarily involves offering the defendant a lesser charge to which the defendant is expected to plead guilty and forego the right to proceed to trial.

  • Preparing the case for trial - When a plea bargain cannot be agreed upon, the prosecutor must prepare the case for trial by conducting an investigation, reviewing evidence, and communicating with key players and witnesses in the case.

  • Presenting a case to a grand jury - A grand jury is a panel made up of citizens that review the facts of a case and decide whether or not these facts warrant criminal prosecution.

  • Jury selection - When a case goes to trial, the prosecutor has a lead role during jury selection, which is also known as voir dire (pronounced vwah-deer). During this process, the prosecutor has the opportunity to question potential jurors and can dismiss some jurors from the pool.

  • Presenting the case at trial - Trials can take place in front of a judge or in front of a jury. During trial, prosecutors are required to make an opening statement, present the state's case, and provide closing arguments.

  • Making sentencing recommendations - Although prosecutors can make sentencing recommendations when a defendant is found to be guilty, the ultimate responsibility for sentencing lies with the trial judge.

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