Document Type


Publication Date

June 2009


In the Jena 6 case, six African-American high school students were arrested for assault charges allegedly arising out of a series of confrontations between black and white students stemming from a black student's sitting under the "white tree" on school grounds. The Jena prosecutor successfully arranged for one of the Jena 6 to be tried as an adult, where he was convicted and exposed to the potential of a very harsh sentence. The prosecutor did not, however, proceed, or not proceed as harshly, against several white students who were purportedly involved in violence or threats of violence against black students. Although the convicted student's case was ultimately sent back to juvenile court by the appellate courts, the prosecutor defended his actions as required by his professional role. This piece challenges this purely adversarial vision of the prosecutor's role by analyzing the economy or racial esteem and disesteem. Drawing on social science and philosophy, the piece argues that prosecutors have an obligation to recognize the harsh group-based effects that their decisions can have in individual cases and to take steps to minimize, eliminate, or rectify those ill effects. The article ends by suggesting two models for prosecutorial ethics for different classes of situations: "modified do justice adversarialism" and "the medical model." The article does not recommend new ethics rules but rather structural changes in how prosecutors' offices operate to help to reduce the prosecutors' negative impact upon the workings of the racial esteem economy.

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