Not that it’s the worst example of abuse ever, but when you look prosecutorial misconduct up in the dictionary, you see a picture of MIke Nifong, the former Durham, North Carolina district attorney. His prosecution of three innocent Duke University lacrosse players remains a shining example of why prosecutors can’t be left to their own devices.
And yet, even Nifong’s outrageous conduct may not be enough to get a Fourth Circuit panel to let the case proceed, as appears from oral argument. From the Durham Herald-Sun :
Federal appeals judges reviewing the lawsuits spawned by the Duke lacrosse case voiced unease Tuesday about the chances of their becoming a flawed precedent for the law in five states.The fear is that stripping Nifong of qualified immunity could lead to, well, bad prosecutors not having qualified immunity, followed shortly thereafter by the sun colliding with the earth.
“The question I have about this whole case is whether a bad case makes for some very bad law,” said Judge Harvie Wilkinson III, who’s chairing the three-judge panel that will rule on the city of Durham’s government-immunity claims.
“What we do here is not just the Duke case,” noted Judge Roger Gregory, the panel’s third member. “It’s going to apply to everybody.”The notion of prosecutors, or more precisely, the government entities for whom they work, being held accountable for their deliberate wrongdoing clearly shook up the judges. While it might be one thing for Nifong, already outed, disbarred and jailed for a day, the judges recognize that their ruling will stand as precedent against prosecutorial misconduct, to be used against others whose conduct isn’t as well known or universally reviled.
Lawyers for Durham made the usual arguments, that a grand jury indicted and immunity attaches. After all, it’s not like there was no evidence to support the case, as there was always stripper Crystal Mangnum’s allegation that she was raped. It’s not Nifong’s fault it wasn’t true.
Motz summed up the players’ countering argument. “Conspiracy to frame people, I don’t think there’s qualified immunity for that,” she said.
But Wilkinson signaled that he’s uncomfortable with the conspiracy arguments because they could impinge on the normal, day-to-day interactions between police and prosecutors.Here lies the crux of the problem, that the law is more concerned with the ease of prosecution, of police/prosecutor communications, then it is with its integrity. “Get it done” is elevated over “get it right.”
“The whole criminal-justice system depends on fairly free and open communication between police and prosecutors. It’s absolutely basic,” he said. “You inject civil liability into the midst of that communication, you could disrupt the candor of it.”
This is where many people fail to appreciate the extent of deference the law, and the judges, show cops and prosecutors. This is what gives rise to the anger that “ignorance of the law” is a one-way street, where defendants are prosecuted, convicted and imprisoned for hypertechnical violations of trivial laws and regulations while police and prosecutors can get the law wrong, often way wrong, with impunity.
To some extent, those charged by government to enforce law, and thereby prevent crime and maintain order in society, must be given certain latitude to do their job without fear that they will held personally accountable for a mistake. If that were the case, it could paralyze law enforcement, and thus prevent its ability to function and fulfill its purpose.
Whenever something goes terribly wrong, it’s easy to understand why people demand better. At the same time, it’s critical to remember that they don’t exist for their own sake (even though it often seems that way), but for ours. There are bad people out there, violent people, and we need law enforcement to protect us from them. When a cop stares down a rapist, it’s absurd to demand that he first check his pocket book of statutes to make sure all the elements have been met before preventing insertion. Given the focus on police and prosecutorial misconduct and abuse, it’s easy for forget that they also do good. And sometimes, in the course of doing good, they make mistakes. But they do so on our behalf.
Yet that doesn’t give rise to carte blanche, for a prosecutor bent on playing out a public fraud for a crime that he should have known never happened, and hanging out three students, not to mention smearing the rest, while making himself a national hero standing atop an indictment built on lies.
The dividing line appears to be objective good faith, where a cop or prosecutor can no longer hide behind the pretense that he thought he was on the side of the angels when he knew damn well what he was doing. Clearly, subjective good faith would never work, as it’s far too easy for scoundrels to hide behind the claim that they believed, and often still do, that an innocent person was guilty. Even in many of the DNA exoneration cases, prosecutors maintain that the failure is in the proof, not in the fact of guilt. They remain absolutely convinced that the person they put on death row was guilty, though the DNA says otherwise.
The problem with such a test is that it would require courts to do something for which they have proven themselves particularly poorly suited: concluding that a cop or prosecutor has crossed the line. Given any chance, any explanation no matter how facile, to chalk up a disastrous prosecution to an innocent mistake by otherwise honorable prosecutors, and that’s where they go. Calling out a prosecutor for deliberate impropriety is like ripping out their heart, something judges just can’t seem to do.
With the case of Mike Nifong before them, the Fourth Circuit has the poster boy for prosecutorial misconduct, perhaps the one district attorney whose heart they would be willing to rip from his chest and hold in their hands. But then, their ruling will be precedent for others, the lesser-known, lesser-hated bad prosecutors whose conduct isn’t all that different from Nifong’s. Are they up to the challenge?
Added: A twit by Edward Wiest on this post made a great point:
Hard cases can/will make bad law–either way.H/T FritzMuffKnuckle