Sunday, June 17, 2007

Prosecutorial Politics

Justice & the Light of Truth
The prosecutor in the Duke University lacrosse team rape case was disbarred Saturday for unethical conduct, and the chairman of the disciplinary committee blamed "political ambition" for his downfall. ~ CNN

The disbarment yesterday for ethics violations of Mike Nifong, the North Carolina prosecutor of the three student Duke Lacrosse team members for the alleged rape of an exotic dancer, brings to light what happens when an elected public official places his political ambitions above his duties to his public office.

The case made national headlines: the accused were portrayed as wealthy, privileged young white men who sexually exploited and raped an African-American exotic dancer they had hired to entertain the Lacrosse team. Prosecutor Nifong was found to have pressed the case to the utmost, even though their was little or no evidence against the accused.

Finally North Carolina's attorney general assumed the case and last April determined the charges were unfounded, had the case against the Duke students dismissed. An ethics complaint, which included that Prosecutor Nifong made “approximately 150 statements to the media that he ‘knew or reasonably should have known… had a substantial likelihood of prejudicing the criminal adjudicative proceeding,’” was filed against Nifong, which resulted in his disbarment yesterday for "dishonesty, fraud, deceit and misrepresentation." The chairman of the disciplinary committee blamed "political ambition" for Nifong downfall.

It seems that these days the position of prosecutor—District Attorney, State’s Attorney, or what designation is applied—can too easily be influenced by political ambition. Fifty years or so ago there was a radio, and later, TV, series entitled Mr. District Attorney, based upon the career of New York’s crusading prosecutor and, later, governor (and presidential candidate) Thomas E. Dewey. I watched the TV series as a child. It was my first introduction to “the law” and created within me a desire to attend law school, on which I never did follow through.

What I can remember most vividly about the TV series was its introduction, in which “the voice of the law” stated that the district attorney was the “chief law enforcement official” and had the duty of seeking “the truth.” I am now unsure that today “the truth” plays as central a role in those duties as much as winning convictions. Perhaps it never has, but one would certainly like to think that “the truth” is central to the American justice system. As you may have guess, I am more than a bit of a philosophical idealist!

In recent years the connection between prosecution and politics has seems to have become blurred. The prosecutors portrayed in the TV series Law and Order seem to be more concerned with winning in court that with discovering “the truth.” And I find it more than a bit interesting that actor who plays the district attorney on Law and Order, former Senator Fred Thompson, is now making a thus-far unannounced bid for the Republican nomination for the Presidency of the United States. Thompson introduces his personal website with these words:

Friends, your encouragement has me thinking we can change Washington and help America meet the challenges of today and tomorrow. We’re entering a new phase of this process and we aren’t going to do things the same old way.

Now, I need your support to keep us moving forward.

Here is the baseline for me: if the duties of the office of public prosecutor really do include seeking “the truth,” how can one carry out those duties if one has at least one eye on being re-elected or on the politics of office, including higher political office. The tragic story of the members of the Duke Lacrosse team, whose lives were almost destroyed by a politically ambitious prosecutor, is evidence of the problem. I would also suggest that the hot water in which Attorney General Alberto Gonzales (who is now being investigated by his own Department of Justice) finds himself for firing of nine federal prosecutors who supposedly would not play politics further evinces this connection between prosecutors and politics.

I may be idealistic and more than a bit naïve, but I really like the idea that central to the role of being “the chief law enforcement” officer of a community is seeking the truth. I like the way the introduction to the TV series, Mr. District Attorney, stated that, even if the district attorney upon whom it was based was first and foremost a politician.




  1. I think this sort of thing is endemic throughout the Western world, Nick. Ambition over-rules fair play.

  2. From my understanding of history, politics and the American judiciary have always been connected, no matter what the Constitution many say.

  3. I came over to wish you a Happy Father's Day!

  4. Same as Squirl. Hope you're having a good day, Nick :)

  5. WOAH, PORN!

    (Don't let John Ashcroft see that!!!)

  6. In our political world there is just too little actual seeking truth or even caring if it is found and way too much made-up 'truth'. ec

  7. Nifong got in way over his head and I think all the media coverage sent him into Looney Tunes.

    Dewey was an excellent district attorney, especially for the 1930s with all of its crime and corruption. He wasn’t such a bad governor either. All in all, I think he was a very honest man, unlike 99% of today’s politicians.

    I wouldn’t vote for Fred Thompson even if he were a Democrat, which I’m damned glad he isn’t.

    Happy Father’s day, Rev. Saint.