In 1940, then–U.S. attorney general Robert Jackson gave a speech to prosecutors, telling them, “While the prosecutor at his best is one of the most beneficent forces in our society, when he acts from malice or other base motives, he is one of the worst.” Jackson’s career exhibited this good side, and he went on to serve as the chief prosecutor in the Nuremberg trials of the Nazis. Jackson’s comments about the potential good and the potential evil of prosecutors ring true today.
To honor Jackson’s view of prosecutors, I have compiled a list of the five best and five worst in the United States today. The factors under consideration: public safety, fidelity to the rule of law, personal integrity, leadership, responsible innovations and training, community relations, office morale, and teamwork with other players in the criminal-justice system.
In the interests of starting with good news, let’s begin with the five best prosecutors. (I will describe the five worst in a separate article.) Fortunately, the United States has more than just five great prosecutors, but these five stand out, in my judgment.
Summer Stephan, San Diego: Summer Stephan has served as San Diego’s district attorney since 2017. She worked her way up the ranks, serving as a line and deputy prosecutor for almost 30 years and trying scores of cases before becoming chief prosecutor. She specialized in trying difficult homicide and child sexual-abuse cases. As district attorney, she kept San Diego one of the safest big cities in America, with violent and property crime rates well below those of cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. She doesn’t flinch from making tough calls. While she is a strong partner for law enforcement, she did not hesitate to charge and convict a deputy sheriff who shot an unarmed, fleeing suspect. Stephan also charged Antifa activists who attacked Donald Trump supporters. When George Soros funded a public defender to run against her, Stephan took on the challenge and won, stating unambiguously that her opponent’s goal was “about advancing the rights of criminals over the rights of victims.” She was endorsed by an array of public-interest organizations, law enforcement, and other prosecutors. She recently announced an innovative new program to prevent crime by homeless people by focusing on getting them into mental health or drug treatment, instead of simply allowing them to camp out in the city. As a result of her strong leadership and integrity, she has been elevated to leadership positions in the National District Attorneys Association and is running unopposed this year for reelection.
Kym Worthy, Detroit: Kym Worthy is the Wayne County prosecutor, making her the chief prosecutor for Detroit. With persistent poverty and a history of violence, Detroit is rightly considered a tough city for this task. But Worthy does an outstanding job in a tough environment. After earning her undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan and her law degree from Notre Dame, she went to work as a line prosecutor in 1984. She was first elected district attorney in 2004. When an investigation revealed corruption by Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, then a rising Democratic star, Worthy’s team took on the politically hazardous prosecution of a member of her own party, convicting Kilpatrick and his aide of obstruction of justice in 2008. Years later, in 2016, Worthy presciently discussed prosecutors who refuse to prosecute gun crimes: “I realize . . . that the trend now is to decriminalize. [I]s the death of innocent children and how we deal with it really in this category? Get real.” Detroit’s first black district attorney, Worthy calls out the “stop snitching” culture that hampers prosecution of violent crime and prioritizes protection of witnesses. Worthy also established the first elder-abuse unit in the history of her office. Recognized by peers for her steady leadership and integrity, Worthy serves as a national officer for the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys. David LaBahn, executive director of the APA, commented, “Working with the limited resources of an economically challenged city, Kym Worthy’s experience allows her to thoughtfully keep the balance between protecting victims and assuring defendants’ rights.”
John Durham, special counsel, Department of Justice: Durham served as the United States Attorney for the District of Connecticut from 2018–21 and is now special counsel for the Department of Justice to investigate possible wrongdoing related to opposition-research activities in the 2016 presidential election. That he has been deemed sufficiently trustworthy to serve under both Republican and Democratic administrations speaks volumes about his integrity. Durham started as a local prosecutor, learning the ropes by trying cases from DUIs to homicides. He then was selected as an Assistant United States Attorney for DOJ, prosecuting organized crime. Over the course of his career, he has been entrusted with investigating rogue FBI agents who conspired with the notorious Whitey Bulger in Boston and conducting an inquiry into enhanced-interrogation techniques at Guantanamo Bay. Always media-shy, he has been named one of Washington’s “most powerful, least famous” people. Durham’s current investigation into the Steele dossier in the 2016 presidential election already has resulted in three people being charged federally, and he is making well-connected Washington players sweat about their role in alleging that Russia influenced the 2016 presidential contest, a claim widely reported by the mainstream media but since shown to have all the indications of a political hit job. Durham’s deep experience in the criminal-justice system, dogged insistence on the truth, and resolute intention to avoid the spotlight has earned him a reputation as a prosecutor’s prosecutor.
Kenda Culpepper, Rockwall County, Texas: Culpepper is district attorney for Rockwall County, just outside of Dallas. Culpepper went to law school to be a prosecutor and joined the district attorney’s office as a line assistant district attorney immediately after graduation. She then added another layer of experience before being elected district attorney by engaging in a criminal-defense practice, allowing her to see both sides of criminal issues. She was elected district attorney in 2008. For the last 14 years, serving next door to a district attorney’s office in Dallas that has seen enormous changes in approach, Culpepper has witnessed both the good and bad in criminal-justice reforms. Through it all, she has kept a steady course, punishing violent criminals and protecting victims while upholding the ethical rules for prosecutors. Though hers is the smallest county in Texas, she has served as president of the Texas District and County Attorneys Association and a delegate to the National District Attorneys Association, and was named the 2021 Texas Prosecutor of the Year for her innovative efforts to keep the criminal-justice system running during the Covid-19 pandemic. Even defense lawyers respect her. One remarked: “Kenda Culpepper is not only tough on crime, she is smart on crime—using all available resources to try to make sure the right man or woman is charged. Her ethics and professionalism make her a role model for all law enforcement officers.”
Matt Weintraub, Bucks County, Pennsylvania: Weintraub is the Bucks County district attorney in Pennsylvania, a county with over 600,000 residents. He is a career prosecutor, having served as a line prosecutor in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey for over 25 years before becoming district attorney in 2016. Almost immediately after his election, Weintraub found his office involved in the case of a gruesome quadruple murder; colleagues and commentators praised his steady demeanor and professionalism as he brought the killers to justice. In his role as a county prosecutor, Weintraub must coordinate the activities of roughly 40 law-enforcement agencies, from large police departments to agencies with just a few officers. Bucks County is immediately adjacent to Northeast Philadelphia, so Weintraub and his staff must deal with the lawlessness that crosses the border from Philadelphia. Weintraub has been an early adopter of critical programs like requiring every police officer to carry Narcan to revive overdose victims, tracking officers with credibility issues, and requiring independent investigations of officer-involved shootings, even when some police unions objected to these reforms. He serves on the executive committee of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association. In a testament to his effectiveness and the respect of his community, Weintraub cruised to electoral wins in the 2017 and 2021 elections, when other Republican candidates were getting run out of office in the newly blue Philadelphia suburbs. Greg Rowe, the executive director of the prosecutors association, praised Weintraub as “dedicated and authentic . . . [working] tirelessly to help ensure community safety and victims’ rights.”
These five prosecutors share some common traits. They have deep experience as prosecutors, some of them in multiple jurisdictions and systems. They understand their mission to protect crime victims. They are uniformly tough on violent criminals while seeking safe and innovative ways to deal with low-level offenders. They don’t play political favorites. They work well with law enforcement and other prosecutors, while demanding that people play by the rules. Their personal ethics are outstanding, and they are respected as leaders by their peers. They have demonstrated that they can be trusted to do the right thing for the right reasons.
With violent crime spiking across the United States, we can take heart that plenty of outstanding prosecutors remain on the job. Without question, though, an increasing number of progressive prosecutors are refusing to prosecute criminals, even as lawlessness increases in their jurisdictions. In the next article, I will identify the worst of these prosecutors.