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Who protests the prosecutors?

When McLean County State’s Attorney Ladd Erickson dismissed a trespassing charge to recharge journalist Amy Goodman at “Democracy Now!” under North Dakota’s anti-riot statute, he was sending a message: I don’t care what constitutional amendments I’m violating, shut your mouth and get out. On Monday District Judge John Grinsteiner dismissed the charge. If he had not done so, she could potentially have faced 45 years in prison for reporting news with a spin on it.

Rory Fleming

Goodman, a reporter at the independent, progressive news outlet, says she was just doing her job by filming Native American protesters and their allies against the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Erickson disagreed, countering that “she’s a protester, basically. Everything she reported on was from the position of justifying the protest actions.”

Journalism is defined by Merriam-Webster as: “a person engaged in journalism; especially a writer or editor for a news medium,” or “a writer who aims at a mass audience.” Both seem to fit Goodman, who co-directs a news broadcast that reaches hundreds of thousands of people both nationally and across the globe.

And whether or not you agree, reporting on current events is covered by First Amendment protections.

Used ‘intimidation’ statute against blogger

Prosecuting Attorney Aaron Negangard in rural Dearborn County, Indiana, was willing to toe the line when he tried to prosecute a blogger who criticized a judge on his blog. Negangard, responsible for one of the highest incarceration per capita rates in the country, used the state’s fraught “intimidation” statute. The conviction stood because it was for speech that crossed the line into actionable threats of violence.

That’s all well and good, but head county prosecutors are almost always elected in this country. Do we want a prosecutor – like Negangard — who brags about how their county puts more people in jail than just about anyone else, who drug tests his own kids weekly and advocates all parents do the same? Or ones like Erickson, who prosecutes someone for a midlevel felony because he doesn’t think he or she is a “real journalist”? We the people have a choice.

We can remember at the ballot box when Hennepin County Attorney Mike O. Freeman failed to charge police officers for fatally shooting Jamar Clark, or more recently, when he rebuked the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology for finding that much forensic science relied on by prosecutors, like “bite-mark analysis,” is tantamount to junk science. In an interview with Daniel Denvir at Salon, Freeman told him the study was corrupted by bias, despite freely admitting “I’m a prosecutor and not a scientist.” Making matters worse, Freeman is the president-elect of the National District Attorneys Association, which responded to the PCAST report by stating that the team, led by Eric Lander of the Human Genome project, lacked “qualifications” and used “unreliable and discredited research.” They, too, are prosecutors: not journalists, and definitely not scientists.

Apathy mixed with implicit trust

But unless a small-town prosecuting attorney does something crazy to make himself or herself known, very few people pay attention to what goes on, even locally. It is an apathy mixed with implicit trust that makes head prosecutors behave with impunity when rebuked and ultimately refuse to change their past behaviors. If we see ourselves as a part of a greater Minnesota community, we owe it to ourselves to pay attention to the news in a new way. If we hear of a criminal case in a small neighboring county that sounds trumped up, we should consider Googling that prosecutor’s name.

If a pattern of impropriety is found, you can tell a friend who lives there. Maybe they’ll vote. If it is bad enough, maybe they’ll protest. God knows some head prosecutors deserve it.

Rory Fleming is a criminal justice researcher and an independent consultant with the Fair Punishment Project at Harvard Law School. He lives in St. Paul.

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