Editorial: One of My Many Wishes for the New Year

This editorial was published as part of our 12/29/06 "Mini-Bulletin." The entire bulletin can be read online here. One of the news items today -- not in drug policy -- was the filing of an ethics complaint by the North Carolina Bar Association against Mike Nifong, the now high-profile prosecutor in the case involving three Duke University lacrosse players who originally faced rape charges and are still charged with kidnapping and sexual assault. The complaint comes on the heels of a letter sent by a member of Congress from the state, asking the US Attorney General to investigate Nifong. No, I'm not about to express a wish related to this case. I'm not familiar enough with it to express what I would consider an informed opinion, and I wouldn't post such an opinion here in this drug policy newsletter if I did. But I do know something about prosecutorial misconduct in general. For example, that a 2003 report by the Center for Public Integrity, "Harmful Error," found that it is widespread but almost never punished. According to CPI, prosecutorial misconduct falls mainly in several categories:
  • courtroom misconduct;
  • mishandling of physical evidence;
  • failing to disclose exculpatory evidence;
  • threatening, badgering or tampering with witnesses;
  • using false or misleading evidence;
  • harassing, displaying bias toward, or having a vendetta against the defendant or defendant's counsel;
  • improper behavior during grand jury proceedings.
(There's much more detail about these, of course, on the web site.) Another thing I know about prosecutorial misconduct is that the most common victim of it is black or brown, and poor, is not enrolled at a prestigious university, and doesn't have the best lawyers that money can buy. Media outlets, certainly national ones, almost never focus on their cases. Often they receive the arguably sound advice that innocent or guilty they should really not fight the charges, or the outcome will be much worse. And the Bar Association won't do anything about their cases, because there are just too many. Misconduct in the criminal justice system is by no means limited to the ranks of prosecutors. Police are also serious, perennial offenders. For example, a recent case in Hartford, Connecticut involved a retired police officer who was convicted recently of falsifying an arrest warrant. His colleagues came to his defense, arguing that this was common practice in the department. The judge gave him a special form of probation that will allow him to get his record expunged upon completion of it. The trial has myriad implications. First, there is confirmation by actual police officers, under oath, that police officers constantly break the law in order to make arrests. Second, the officers obviously felt comfortable enough with that fact to state it publicly, before a judge. Third, the judge was okay enough with this to give the officer a sentence that is a little more than a slap on the wrist, but not all that much more. How is police and prosecutorial misconduct to be stemmed if it is tolerated? And if it isn't, how can we in the public have faith in the outcome of any criminal case? One of my many wishes for the New Year is that fewer police and prosecutors commit misconduct, and that more complaints are filed against those who do.
Location: 
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Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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