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September 11, 2007

Mike Nifong, and Why the Justice System Is Going to the Dogs

Today, former Durham, North Carolina district attorney Mike Nifong began serving a 24-hour jail term for his role in the Duke University sexual assault case. On December 10, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick will be sentenced to up to 5 years in prison — probably between a year and a year and a half — for financing, running and taking bets on a dogfighting ring.

At the risk of getting getting hate mail from animal lovers, I think it’s important to point out here that while what Vick did was reprehensible, these are dogs. Even a PETA member would be hard pressed to argue that what Vick did was 500 times as serious as what Nifong did.

Let’s consider what Nifong did to earn his 24 hours behind bars: He created a rape case against three Duke University lacrosse players for the sake of political gain. He was aware that the accuser had offered several conflicting, drug-addled accounts of the alleged attack. He was aware that there was no physical evidence, and that there was credible evidence showing that one of the defendants was not even present at the time. Within a few weeks, DNA test results showed that the defendants did not have sexual contact with the accuser, and he with-held this information from the defense. Pandering to the black Durham voters he considered vital for his re-election, he publicly referred to the alleged attack (three white students accused of raping a black exotic dancer) as racially motivated.

The damage to the defendants included suspension from Duke University, nine months as rape suspects, reportedly over a million dollars in legal fees each, and permanent Wikipedia pages devoted to the accusations.

But let’s put aside the specific effects on the defendants, and even most of the specific charges against Nifong, and focus on this: As a prosecutor, he had three people indicted for rape, knowing that they were probably innocent, with-holding and lying about evidence indicating that they were innocent, all for the sake of trying to advance his career. And he wasn’t just anybody, he was a man given an enormous public trust and the power that accompanies it.

“Scary” shouldn’t even begin to describe it: If this is what a prosecutor could do to three young men whose families were well-connected and able to spent millions of dollars to fight the charges, what chance would the likes of us have?

Back to Vick, I’m actually fine with him going to prison for a year and a half — but the proportionality is all wrong: Nifong is guilty of offenses against not only the defendants but against our faith in the legal system. I understand that he’s lost his job, was disbarred and faces civil actions, but the criminal justice system should be demonstrating in the most severe way that this behavior can’t be tolerated.

A 24-hour sentence, on the other hand, was the court’s way of saying “We have to find you guilty, but we’re doing all we can to close ranks and protect our own.”

  • Related: Mike Nifong does not, in fact, apologize or admit he was wrong
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4 Comments »

  1. Bill,
    For a non-lawyer (I assume), you generally demonstrate a good understanding of the law. This post does not. Vick pled to FEDERAL charges (sorry for the cap’s but I don’t know any other way to emphasize) and his sentence was largely ordained by the federal sentencing guidelines; Nifong pled to a petty little state contempt charge, and his sentence was likewise largely ordained. This was not a “close our ranks” sentence, and your post is, IMHO, unwarranted. Frankly, I think Nifong has, in toto, been punished quite severely. He is not a DA; he is not a lawyer. How he will earn a living is unclear. I, for one, would not even hire him as a clerk. (I’d say “janitor” but I don’t want to insult janitors.) Bottom line, I think this case demonstrates why the justice system works.

    Comment by Norm — September 8, 2007 @ 6:54 pm

  2. What you say is true, Norm. My issue here is the FACT that the guidelines mandate a maximum of five years for Vick and a maximum of thirty days for Nifong. And, for that matter, the fact that Nifong was allowed to plead to “a petty little state contempt charge.”

    And even given the guidelines, Nifong was given the minimum possible sentence. Thirty days would have said “these guidelines are terribly inadequate for your offense, but at the very least I’m going to sentence you to the maximum allowed.” One day says “I have to punish you, and this is the softest slap on the wrist I’m legally allowed to give.”

    It’s the equivalent of a civil jury knowing that they have to find for the plaintiff under the law but showing their true feelings by awarding one dollar.

    Comment by Cidu Bill — September 8, 2007 @ 7:22 pm

  3. “… what chance would the likes of us have?” Have you ever heard of my friend Oliver Jovanovic? See Cybercase.org.

    Note that Linda Fairstein also prosecuted the non-rapists of the Central Park Jogger. Oliver, like the Duke defendants, has rich parents. (He’s now on the Columbia faculty, but the stain will be with him for the rest of his life.)

    Comment by Carl — September 8, 2007 @ 9:25 pm

  4. A lot of people in that area are absolutely convinced that Nifong was railroaded by someone who deliberately and with malice contaminated or replaced the DNA samples in order to make absolutely sure three rich, privileged white boys got away with raping a black stripper. I’m not surprised Nifong got only 24 hours in that atmosphere.

    Comment by Charlene — September 9, 2007 @ 2:35 am


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