Duke 3, Mob 0
By Doug Thompson
Saturday’s disbarment of Mike Nifong, the Durham, N.C. prosecutor who wrongfully indicted the Duke University lacrosse players of raping a stripper, leaves a standing warning to news organizations everywhere.
We’re not the only ones who sometimes don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story. Take a saltshaker with you every time you interview someone, even a prosecuting attorney.
I wouldn’t know Nifong if I passed him on the street. I’m willing to bet, though, that he’d have been more willing to acknowledge the absence of DNA evidence from the defendants a long time ago if the story he helped create hadn’t received worldwide attention. This, of course, was going to lead to worldwide embarrassment when the prosecutor’s case fell apart. Nifong only made things worse by hanging on and, apparently, hoping for a miracle or a conviction by bluff.
Three members of the Duke team were charged with raping a stripper. The accuser told police in one statement that 20 men raped her. She later revised that down to three. No DNA evidence was found from any of the three, despite the accuser’s claim that her attackers did nothing to shield themselves from leaving such evidence. Nifong hid the DNA results for a time – illegally, even from the defense attorneys – and misrepresented the fact that the accused cooperated with investigators and freely provided the DNA samples needed.
The alleged rape was supposed to have happened in March, 2006. There was a Democratic primary going on. Nifong won narrowly, after he publicly said he would make sure justice was done even in a case where the parents of the accused could afford good attorneys.
It’s a good thing for justice that the parents in this case could afford good attorneys. The accused proved their innocence in what amounted to – to paraphrase another famous case – an avalanche of truth that crumbled a mountain of lies. Even photographs taken with cell-phone cameras piled up, showing the victim in the open at times when she was supposedly getting gang raped in a bathroom.
All this lead to Saturday’s hearing. According to durhamwonderland.blogspot.com, which tracked the case and is kept by history professor K.C. Johnson of Brooklyn College, disbarment committee chairman Lane Williamson best summed up Nifong’s refusal to let the facts influence the case: “It seems that at the root of it is self-deception arising out of self-interest.”
De Nile ain’t just a river in Egypt.
I liked the Charlotte Observer’s quote of Williamson better: “The purpose is not to punish him for moral wrongs but to protect the public from violations of ethics,” Williamson said. “If we [found him] being, in effect, clueless, isn’t that just as much danger … as if it were intentional?’”
Sometimes, people in authority are dead wrong. Sometimes, people in authority are more interested in publicity than justice. Sometimes, when the story has grown too big, publicity gets in the way of justice.
The real victim in this case never was the bewildered accuser. The victim is certainly not Nifong. The victims are not limited to the lacrosse team at Duke, the university itself, or the credibility of the justice system. The chief victims are three young men forever seared by false prosecution, deliberate misrepresentation of the evidence against them and the red-hot public attention the racially charged case received.
The next victim of this case will be someone — black like this accuser or from other wrong side of this country’s tracks — who really does get raped. Many cries of “Wolf” still hang in the air, thanks to this fiasco.
The discredit heaped upon the country’s system of prosecuting crimes by Nifong will take years to undo, at least in North Carolina. The proper first step was taken Saturday by the state’s bar association. They cut Nifong out. But his own resignation from office as prosecutor doesn’t take effect until July 13 after the procedures of taking away his license are finished.
Nifong’s doing nothing but drawing pay. Any case he files will be immediately suspect. Nobody will take his word for anything. Any criminal case he files from now to when his resignation takes effect in mid-July will be tried — ironically — solely on the merits.