Podcast Explores the Power of Prosecutors

August 2, 2023 | Phoebe Petrovic

A graphic image with the podcast title, Open and Shut, in big red letters.

If you got in trouble with the law, who do you think would have the most influence over your fate? 

That’s a question we ask listeners in Open and Shut, a narrative and investigative podcast series from Wisconsin Watch and Wisconsin Public Radio. The answer, which we explore over seven episodes, is not a police officer, judge, or jury. It’s a prosecutor.

Prosecutors decide whether to bring charges against someone, what type, and how many. In over 95% of criminal cases, American prosecutors secure guilty pleas. Most people charged with crimes will admit guilt during a pre-trial stage, which has much lower evidentiary standards than a trial. A prominent legal scholar told us she holds prosecutors responsible for mass incarceration. 

Add to that the few, often ineffective mechanisms for accountability when prosecutors abuse their power and the situation can become much more dire. As we say in our podcast trailer: “Prosecutors are the people we put in charge of enforcing our laws, but we rarely hold them accountable when they break the rules.” 

My editor, Dee Hall, had dreamed of a series exploring prosecutorial power for close to 15 years. The story she envisioned centered on the case of Kenneth Hudson, a man who proclaimed his innocence for two decades despite serving a life sentence for murder. She followed his story for years, collecting pieces over her time as a daily reporter, before hiring me to craft a podcast series.

After months reading thousands of pages of court records, police reports, and notes that accompanied Hudson’s case, I came away wanting to tell a bigger story. Hudson alleged myriad, sometimes shocking, forms of misconduct. However, his claims about the prosecutor, then-District Attorney Vince Biskupic, matched those made by defendants in other cases Biskupic oversaw.

Taken together, these claims document the prosecutor’s extensive power over charging, plea bargaining, evidence, and the impact that has on victims, the accused, and our justice system. The first step to ensure prosecutors wield their power ethically is for all of us to start paying attention.

Phoebe Petrovic is an investigative reporter covering disinformation at Wisconsin Watch and a 2022–2023 Law & Justice Journalism Project fellow. As a Report for America corps member from 2019–2022, Petrovic reported, produced, and hosted Open and Shut, a podcast series co-published with Wisconsin Public Radio examining the power of prosecutors. Open and Shut is a finalist for the 2023 Media for a Just Society Award in the podcast/radio category.