The new top federal prosecutor in Washington, D.C., Kenneth L. Wainstein, is shaking up his homicide unit, creating an elite team of prosecutors, reports the Washington Post. In the nation’s capital, the U.S. Attorney handles local homicide cases. The Post says the changes are the most significant restructuring in years and come after a notable decline in the conviction rate in murder trials and complaints by judges about the performance of some prosecutors. The conviction rate has rebounded and homicides have fallen, but the city has had a surge in killings of juveniles this year, and gun violence persists. In that climate, Wainstein said, the need for action remains. In the new unit, about 30 prosecutors will work exclusively on homicides. Other serious violent crimes, such as armed assault, will be handled by a new major crimes unitince taking over in May. Under the structure he inherited, homicides were assigned to a pool of several dozen prosecutors who handled a mix of criminal cases based on geography. Some of the lawyers had little experience with murder trials.
Preparing a murder case for trial is a major undertaking that can take months or years. Prosecutors must prepare witnesses and track forensic and other evidence from the beginning of the grand jury process to the trial. Trials often are a challenge, especially in a city where witnesses frequently are uncooperative. The conviction rate, which fell to 66 percent in 2003, is up to more than 80 percent this year. Wainstein, who prosecuted numerous high-profile cases in the late 1990s as an assistant U.S. attorney, was chief of staff to FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III when he became interim chief prosecutor this spring. A single homicide team, Wainstein said, would be better suited to targeting career criminals because prosecutors would have the time and mandate to conduct the long grand jury investigations that often are necessary. “There are a lot of unprosecuted, unclosed cases out there,” Wainstein said. “There are a lot of grieving widows and mothers, friends, loved ones, who are starved for any progress on the case involving their loved one.”