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What is a Special Prosecutor?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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A special prosecutor is a prosecutorial lawyer from the private sector chosen to investigate, indict and prosecute government officials. While prosecuting a government official suspected of illegal activity would normally fall to a US attorney, a district attorney or an attorney general, the close political relationship of one branch of government to another would suggest that a prosecution conducted by someone employed by the same government, or same branch of government may not be impartial. In these cases, the government may ask a private sector lawyer to serve as special prosecutor, so that no partiality exists in pursuing the case.

Many countries employ a special prosecutor when it comes to cases where a government official stands accused. Partiality may exist with lawyers working for the government already because they may have a direct relationship with the accused, they may have gained political power through the defendant’s political position, or they may be employed by the accused. On the other hand, if the government-employed prosecutor is openly opposed to the defendant’s political party, he or she may prosecute injudiciously. Thus in most cases, a special prosecutor must be employed so that no relationship between the defendant and the prosecutor exists.

In the 2006/2007 trials that accused Scooter Libby of leaking confidential information about a member of the CIA, Patrick Fitzgerald was appointed special prosecutor. A special prosecutor with significant fame was Leon Jaworski, who was appointed as the prosecutor in the case of the United States v. Nixon. Jaworski, after pursuing the case for 11 months quit suddenly. He was angry that President Ford had already issued a presidential pardon to former President Nixon, prior to the conclusion of the trial. Further, as he’s stated in interviews since, he missed his home in Texas.

Special prosecutor Kenneth Starr was well known for his pursuit of President Clinton during first the Whitewater Scandal, and then the Monica Lewinsky Sex Scandal. Though Starr as prosecutor did impeach Clinton, the senate voted to acquit him.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By Buster29 — On Feb 12, 2014

Some state and county court systems also call special prosecutors to handle high profile cases. Sometimes the regular prosecutors have to take themselves off a case because of a personal or professional connection with the defendant, too.

My wife had to testify in a local murder trial that was receiving national media attention. The special prosecutor was a state-level attorney who had a high conviction rate. He tried some legal tactics that were a little questionable, but he did get a conviction during the first trial. A judge later overturned the verdict, citing prosecutorial misconduct. The special prosecutor failed to reveal the existence of an FBI report to the defense attorneys.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
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