Interviewer: What was being a prosecutor like? What was your intent when you were a prosecutor? Were you out to get people? Were you out to convict them? What was your mindset?
Sam Sachs: Before being a prosecutor, I was a public defender. I was one of the first municipal public defenders in New Jersey. I served three years as a public defender and then a year as a prosecutor. Prosecutors take an interesting oath. A prosecutor does not take an oath to convict people. A prosecutor takes an oath to do justice. Justice is simply doing the right thing, and that’s why prosecutors have discretion. I was a very vigorous prosecutor, but again, you have to temper justice with mercy and compassion and that’s exactly what I tried to do.
There were some offenses that I felt were particularly despicable and as every prosecutor decides, I would decide as a prosecutor that maybe I was going to prosecute those a little more toughly. Then there are others where you want to have some pity for the defendant and you realize they were sometimes caught in bad circumstances. There’s a difference between a person who steals a loaf of bread because they’re starving and a person who steals a loaf of bread because they can. It’s not the exact same thing and that’s when you have to decide, whether you’re going to be compassionate or not.
Some Prosecutors Resort to Stacking Charges to Get a Higher Conviction Rate
Interviewer: I’ve heard of prosecutors stacking charges and seeming to just want to get as many convictions as possible. Do you think that that is a common thing?
Sam Sachs: For some of them, it goes to their head and they get rabid over it. I never even thought about what my conviction rate was. As a prosecutor and as a judge, I wanted to be able to go home at night and sleep without having any second thoughts about what I did. I wanted to know that I did the right thing when I took that oath to do justice as a prosecutor. It wasn’t to convict people. I wanted to feel like I did the right thing every day. When I judged cases, if I was on the line and I couldn’t decide as a judge which way to go, I always resolved it in the favor of the defendant. That’s what the law requires. That’s what I did.
Professionalism is a Virtue in the Courtroom
Interviewer: Since you were a prosecutor and now you defend clients, what kind of perspective do you think this gives you when you’re going against prosecutors now on behalf of your client?
Sam Sachs: Although prosecutors are considered adversaries, in New Jersey, lots of times judges are also considered adversaries. Lots of people will accuse judges of having a prosecutorial bent more often than a defense bent, and when I look at the prosecutors, I don’t look at them as adversaries. I look at them as colleagues. I find that as my mother taught me when I was a kid, you catch a lot more bees with honey rather than with vinegar. I am always cordial, respectful, and get to know the prosecutors on a personal level if I can. That and a combination of always, always, always maintaining my credibility is very important. Professionalism means a lot when you go into court.
I’ve had prosecutors who, when I say, “Let me show you the document,” will look at me and say, “If you say that’s what it says, I trust you.” That trust gets built up over years because I don’t make misrepresentations. I don’t deceive them. I don’t pull fast ones on them, and I get respect for that.
On the other hand, they also know that I’m the nicest guy in the world until I step into the courtroom. If they want to go toe to toe with me, I’m going to do my best, pull out all the stops and I’m going to shake the witnesses, and that’s just the way it is, but I save that for the courtroom. I don’t do that on a personal level.