Let’s Not Minimize Nifong’s Culpability

June 18, 2007

I believe the culpability of “rogue” prosecutor and bully-extraordinaire Mike Nifong in the Duke LaCross “fiasco” has been grossly understated. His premeditated actions and apparently unrepentant heart merit a special ranking on the outrage meter and it should be a very long time before we apply to this case the adage that time heals all wounds.

Even in his mostly condemnatory statement explaining the North Carolina Disciplinary Commission’s decision to disbar Nifong, commission chairman F. Lane Williamson seemed to bend over backward to give Nifong the benefit of the doubt — a benefit the wrongfully accused Duke Lacrosse defendants never received.

Williamson said that Nifong’s action appeared to the commission “to be out of self-interest and self deception, not necessarily out of an evil motive, but that his judgment was so clouded by his own self-interest that he lost sight of it and wandered off the path of justice and had to be put back on course again by extraordinary means.”

I respectfully disagree with the evil motive part. It’s as if the commission is suggesting that Nifong’s consuming quest for selfish political benefit somehow lessens his culpability, when it clearly aggravates it.

This is a bit like saying that a bank robber’s criminal act is less criminal because he possessed a dizzying desire to enrich himself. Perhaps if the robber had committed the crime sacrificially to save starving people in Ethiopia, his actions could be viewed in a more favorable light, but that’s hardly the situation here.

Nifong was running for office in a heavily black jurisdiction and deliberately pursued apparently well-to-do white defendants for the express purpose of exploiting racial tensions to improve his prospects for re-election.

Nifong didn’t just press forward with a marginal case. Based on no credible incriminating evidence, and plenty of exculpatory evidence, Nifong brought the charges before even interviewing the accuser, Crystal Mangum, whose story repeatedly changed. He intentionally tainted the jury pool by making improper, misleading and damning public statements against the accused, withheld DNA evidence exonerating the defendants, refused to meet with defense counsel, scoffed at defendant Seligmann’s powerful alibi, and flagrantly lied to the court.

Williamson said, “We had a prosecutor who was faced with a very unusual situation in which the confluence of his self-interest collided with a volatile mix of race, sex and class.”

Sorry to differ again, but Nifong’s self-interest didn’t just fortuitously “collide” with race, sex and class. He was the active agent who caused the collision and who exploited these factors just as an arsonist pours accelerant on his deliberately sparked flame.

Nor do I agree with Williamson that Nifong was “politically naive,” or that, even if he were, this would be a mitigating factor. Nifong was the opposite of politically naive. He was politically astute: His gambit worked to advance his political ambitions, which is precisely what he intended. He implemented it not through naivete but a malicious and depraved heart, which resulted in untold, permanent damage to the wrongfully accused and their families and to race relations in North Carolina and elsewhere.

Long before you start feeling sympathy for Nifong, remember that during his disbarment hearing he steadfastly maintained, in the spirit of a true narcissistic sociopath, that “something happened,” and that Mangum, even if not sexually assaulted, may have been “intimidated,” whatever that means.

Nifong’s insistence that he didn’t intend to make improper public statements on the case or to withhold electrifyingly critical DNA evidence — that these were somehow oversights or a product of mere negligence — does more than strain credulity. It insults anyone with a capacity for reasoning and moral discrimination.

As University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill law professor Joe Kennedy said, “It almost doesn’t get any worse than lying to the judge in terms of ethical violations, but lying to the judge about information that suggests the defendant is innocent is even worse.”

Few things are more unjust than to be wrongfully accused. Few things are more terrifying than to be wrongfully pursued criminally by a prosecutor who, backed by the awesome power and resources of the state, is motivated by self-aggrandizement rather than justice.

Despite the multiple checks and safeguards against abuse built into our criminal justice system, in the end, the system is only as strong as the decency and honor of the people running it. We should never forget that in retrospect, little stood in the way of very different and life-changing results in this case.

Thankfully, the defendants didn’t quit fighting in this case and the North Carolina State Bar and Disciplinary Commission ultimately exerted the courage to approach it with an open mind and an eye toward justice.