Prosecutor’s races don’t usually get much attention from voters, but that’s not the case this year. With ongoing protests against police violence and racial injustice, there’s heightened attention on the role prosecutors play as gatekeepers to the criminal justice system.
There are several highly-contested prosecutor’s races on August primary ballots in Michigan. That includes the race in Wayne County, where longtime incumbent Kym Worthy is facing off against criminal defense attorney Victoria Burton-Harris.
Experience versus a reformer
Worthy has been Wayne County’s elected prosecutor for sixteen years. Historically, she’s sailed through the August primaries that largely decide the race in this heavily-Democratic county.
But this year, Worthy has a real challenger in Burton-Harris. Worthy is staking her campaign on her experience.
“This is not a job you wake up and decide you want to have,” Worthy said. “This is not a time for experimenting with untested leadership.”
But that opens Worthy’s track record up to intense scrutiny. Before she was prosecutor, she was a judge and an assistant prosecutor. In the early 1990s, she prosecuted one of Detroit’s highest-profile cases of police brutality ever—the beating death of a Black man, Malice Green, at the hands of two Detroit police officers.
Worthy won murder convictions for both officers, and she gained a reputation for being willing to go after cops. As a result, she said it took her a long time to establish strong relationships with police.
“We are not in bed with them,” Worthy said. “We are different entities of government. But that doesn’t mean that I’m going to run away from working with them.”
During her sixteen years in office, Worthy has prosecuted plenty of police officers. But her opponent, Burton-Harris, accuses her of letting too many off the hook.
Burton-Harris said she’s dealt with many of those problem officers in her career as a defense attorney, and
there’s rarely any repercussions for routine officer misconduct.
“Why are we hearing about no accountability for when officers lie on the witness stand? No accountability when officers lie in police reports?” Burton-Harris asked.
Worthy, under pressure, did recently release what’s called a Brady-Giglio list of Wayne County cops who aren’t allowed to testify due to past misconduct. But public defenders and other defense attorneys say the list is incomplete, and that Worthy’s office has been too willing to tolerate problem police.
Burton-Harris believes that Wayne County’s criminal justice system needs a more dramatic reckoning than Worthy is willing to take on. “I’ve spent my career protecting people from this very parasitic system that feeds on the bodies of Black and brown folks, our children, [and] people battling with mental illness and substance abuse,” she said.
Burton-Harris says Worthy’s office prosecutes and jails too many people for low-level offenses; that too many people are forced to take bad plea bargains because of excessive charges; and her office prosecutes too many cases where the evidence for guilt is thin.
“I routinely see cases having to be dismissed during either the pretrial phase, or on the first day of trial, because of a lack of sufficient evidence,” Burton-Harris said. “And this all goes back to the policies of the gate keeper, the prosecutor, who decides who comes in this system and who stays out.”
Burton-Harris points to one example:,a ten-year-old Black boy charged with assault for throwing a rubber ball at another boy’s head during a playground game.
While those charges were eventually dismissed, “the fact that he was charged was terrible,” Burton-Harris said, “and he’s traumatized to this day.”
Worthy and Burton-Harris also take somewhat different stances on some hot-button criminal justice reform issues.
One of them is cash bail. Worthy says she doesn’t favor it for most low-level offenses, but she doesn’t support abolishing it.
Burton-Harris does. “This idea that we need cash bail to assure people are not a flight risk, and to ensure that they are not a danger to the community and will not continue committing crimes, is just simply false,” she said.
Another point of disagreement: the use of facial recognition technology to help police identify criminal suspects.
Burton-Harris is against it altogether. In fact, she’s representing a man who was wrongly arrested by Detroit police based on a faulty facial recognition match.
Worthy said she’s cautious about the technology. She admits that it often misidentifies people, particularly people of color. But she says that with proper policies and safeguards, it’s too valuable a tool to reject altogether, “because in many high-profile and many homicide cases, that’s an early investigative tool that can lead to a lead.”
“It's really easy to say that we are going to just reject the technology. That'll be very simple to say. It is very simple for someone to say that has never had this job,” Worthy said.
Worthy also touts her office’s creation of a Conviction Integrity Unit that reviews past cases for possible wrongful convictions. So far, that office has freed 20 wrongfully-convicted people (some were convicted during Worthy’s tenure, others were not), and Worthy says she looks forward to expanding it.
But Burton-Harris said Worthy could put more resources into that unit if she wanted, and her office throws up other obstacles to getting innocent people released.
“We’re going to stop spending resources fighting for innocent people's release through the Court of Appeals. We've been in a sobering amount of money on fighting that,” Burton-Harris said. “Then we turn around a third time, and spend money sending them through the Conviction Integrity Unit when our backs are against the wall and we feel that we have to let them go. So if we stopped doing that, we would have a little bit more money in our budget.”
Worthy said she’s committed to fairness for defendants, but she’s also a fierce advocate for crime victims. She pushes back on Burton-Harris’s claims that Wayne County prosecutes too many weak cases, noting that her office refuses to press charges on around one-third of the cases where police request it. “No one can accuse us of being rubberstamp when we don't issue one third or more of the cases that the police bring to us,” she said.
Worthy also notes that when it comes to low-level offenses, many cases are prosecuted by city attorneys, not her office. And she largely dismisses Burton-Harris’s criticisms of her office.
“I do not think it’s valid,” Worthy said. “It’s really the mark of someone who’s six years out of law school and does not know how things work.”
A tough race to call
Worthy has a lot of things going for her. She’s a longtime incumbent with major name recognition. She’s even developed a national reputation for her work dealing with Detroit’s notorious rape kit backlog.
But Burton-Harris may have the momentum of the moment. She’s also earned national endorsements, and has a national donor base. She consciously centers herself as part of a wave of “progressive prosecutors” who have taken office around the country.
“When you look at the progressive policies that they have brought with them and you see how they have done a few things, they have shrunk the jail and prison population in their jurisdictions,” Burton-Harris said. “They have also decreased violent crime. And they have made safer and more just communities because they've chosen to see that they have to invest in your community, that they've chosen to be present, to be transparent, to take action.”
The one thing that is certain: 2020 is not a typical election year. And that makes this a very tough race to predict.