Charged Summary

Charged is a nonfiction book by Emily Bazelon about the ways in which the disproportionate power of prosecutors influences criminal proceedings in the US.

  • Bazelon analyzes two case studies: that of Kevin, a young man accused of gun possession, and that of Noura Jackson, a young woman accused of her mother’s murder.
  • Due to the very different decisions of the prosecutors in their respective trials, Kevin is placed in a diversion program, while Noura is sentenced to prison.
  • In addition to the case studies, Bazelon explains the growth of prosecutorial power and discusses solutions and reforms.

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In Charged, journalist Emily Bazelon explores the disproportionate power given to prosecutors in contemporary US criminal proceedings. She centers her analysis on two case studies that demonstrate the impact a prosecutor has in the justice system: Kevin, accused of gun possession; and Noura, accused of murdering her mother.

Kevin (a pseudonym), is a young man growing up in a housing project in the high-crime, high-poverty Brownsville neighborhood of New York City. His charge results, primarily, from a split-second panic decision made during a surprise police encounter. One May night, Kevin is relaxing with friends in a Brownsville apartment when the police come to arrest one member of the group. There’s a gun on the table which doesn’t officially belong to any one of them—it’s a prop of sorts for feeling safe, more than something any of them ever intend to use, and Kevin himself has a personal code that precludes the use of weapons. But when the police enter the apartment, he’s the one who panics. Thinking he’ll find a way to get rid of it before anybody gets in trouble, he grabs the gun and is immediately arrested for possession.

The charges against Noura Jackson, a middle-class eighteen-year-old living in suburban Memphis, Tennessee, are much more severe: returning home early one morning after a long night out with friends, she discovers her mother’s murdered body in the home the two share. The crime scene is chaotic and confusing, and there are no clear leads evident from the clues at hand. Noura eventually becomes the primary suspect, based entirely on circumstantial evidence—lacking a better explanation, consensus builds that she must have committed the murder herself to collect life insurance money. Before long, she’s arrested.

Kevin’s case ends up in a specialized New York gun court established in 2016, under prosecutor Caryn Teitelman. Because the prosecutor decides the charges against the defendant, she has an outsized power to shape his future—if she charges him with criminal possession of a weapon in the second degree, his sentence will fall between three and a half to fifteen years. If she charges him with criminal possession of a weapon in the third degree, he’s more likely to get two to seven years. If she only charges him with possession in the fourth degree, the charge is a misdemeanor and results in no time behind bars.

Kevin’s lawyer, Debora Silberman, encourages Teitelman to consider an alternative: a diversion program operated by the district attorney's office which would, if granted, offer Kevin social services and a path toward a clean record. Though skeptical, Teitelman ultimately decides to offer him some clemency, and he's placed in the diversion program.

By contrast, Noura’s prosecutor, Amy Weirich, shows no such lenience. Despite the ambiguity of the evidence, including DNA at the scene that explicitly does not match Noura’s, she is determined to get a conviction in order to maintain her public “tough-as-nails” reputation. In court, she appeals to the jury by leveraging what she perceives to be Noura’s “party girl” persona—she tells the jury how much Noura and her mother fought in the months leading up to her death and how Noura regularly drinks, smokes pot, and stays out all night.

At the urging of her lawyer, Noura exercises her fifth amendment right to remain silent...

(The entire section is 960 words.)