Mike Nifong, the prosecutor in North Carolina who filed charges on the members of the Duke Lacrosse team, has been found guilty of unethical conduct and removed from the membership of North Carolina lawyers. It’s about time.
For too long, prosecutors have used the criminal charging process for political gain or other advantage. Prosecutors are given wide discretion in whether to file any criminal charges, how to file them, against whom to file and when. There is little oversight from the courts or anywhere else. The worst that can usually happen is the criminal charge is dismissed. But nothing ever happens to the prosecutor who wrongfully, deliberately files a criminal charge that is baseless, in bad faith. So, with so little oversight, there can be a lot of misuse of power. Now, for once, a prosecutor got punished. That is very rare, almost unheard of.
It took a flagrant case of misuse or power, of repeated misuse of power, to get Mr. Nifong disciplined by the North Carolina Bar Association. Of course, Mr. Nifong does not have to spend any time in prison, like those persons who are wrongfully accused and wrongfully convicted by the prosecution, but that would be asking too much. Mr. Nifong was not punished by the courts like those who are wrongfully charged with a crime, like those whom he wrongfully charged and tried to send to prison. At least Mr. Nifong was officially declared wrong, his license to practice law has been taken from him, and he cannot therefore continue to hold his office as District Attorney.
Had Mike Nifong’s victims been the usual accused person with no money, perhaps already convicted of a felony, with no family who could help, no friends of any prominence, then in that case, no one would have noticed Mr. Nifong’s wrongful conduct. No one notices the misuse of power routinely pursued in every part of the United States today when the victims are just “criminals”. Who would listen to them? But Mr. Nifong made the mistake of charging well-to-do students who had excellent alibis, who hired good lawyers to defend them from the outset.
And the fire that prosecutors usually use for their own benefit turned against Mr. Nifong in this case-the media. Prosecutors always use the media to inflame the public by leaking selected parts of the evidence, so the case will look the worst against the accused. Prosecutors always use the media for their own purposes. But in this case, as Mr. Nifong sought media coverage for his activities, it all turned against him. It was the defendants’ lawyers who kept giving the media facts that showed the defendants were not guilty. Over and over, the media showed evidence that was apparently insuperable, facts that were never answered by Mr. Nifong, from airtight alibis to inconsistencies in the various stories from the complaining witness. The contradictions in the prosecution’s case continued and worsened. Over and over, the media revealed inconsistencies, contradictions. At every turn, the media was asking how this prosecution could go forward.
Ultimately, in this case, the prosecution would have preferred less media coverage, less investigation by the media than the usual case. The media, the usual tool of the prosecution, had turned against the prosecution as the media published nightly the baseless charges Mr. Nifong had filed against the Duke students.
In this case, the administration and faculty of Duke University also got caught passing judgment on the accused Lacrosse team members simply on the basis of the accusations filed by Mr. Nifong. The administration barred the students from playing Lacrosse, and the faculty published a newspaper accusation against the students. So much for letting the courts decide guilt. The college professors were just too smart for that.
Unfortunately, for the students, this was an example of being punished for something before even being proven guilty…. the exact opposite of the way our country is supposed to work.
The bright spot is that through media attention and vigorous defense of the accused students, a person with the power to make false charges, was revealed…. a light was shown on his unethical actions taken for personal or political gain. Finally, “What goes around, Comes around”– with punishment for a prosecutor, who used to get away with wrongfully accusing innocent people.