Vidkun Quisling was a fascist politician in Norway during World War II. He invited Hitler to invade and occupy the country, then proclaimed himself the new head of Norway’s government and ordered Norwegian troops to lay down their arms. His name–Quisling–has come to mean traitor.
Mike Nifong was the DA in Durham County, North Carolina. He won a close election and drew significant public attention to himself by prosecuting four Duke University lacrosse players–in the media–for allegedly raping a stripper who danced at a private party at the home of another player. The North Carolina State Bar charged him, first, with “conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation” for his handling of the case. Then a second charge was issued, “systematic abuse of prosecutorial discretion ... prejudicial to the administration of justice” when it was learned Nifong withheld DNA results that cleared all four lacrosse players from their defense attorneys. Even after he was disbarred, Nifong tried to hold onto his office for another month. He had to be removed by judicial order and escorted out by the sheriff.
His name–Nifong–has come to mean a prosecutor who systematically abuses his office to obtain convictions and garner self-promoting publicity. When someone says a defendant was “Nifonged” into prison, we now have a frame of reference for the type of prosecutorial misconduct involved.
Prosecutors are supposed to play fair for both sides. State bar rules across the country are clear that a prosecutor has the responsibility of a minister of justice and not simply that of an advocate. In plain English, a defense lawyer may win with the acquittal of a client. A prosecutor, however, wins with a just outcome, which includes a ruling of innocence. That’s the ideal. It is not the reality.
The same media that hung on Nifong’s every word, painted him as the hero and the Duke lacrosse players as “hooligans,” now assures us that the Durham DA is an aberration. Wrong. The only aberration was the North Carolina State Bar, which charged, tried and disbarred him. The usual response from lawyer discipline panels is to ignore the behavior and dismiss complaints to cover the backsides of their colleagues.
A Duke University law professor, James Coleman, told The Herald-Sun of Durham: "Everybody wants to say that Mike Nifong is some kind of a rogue prosecutor, but in fact, what he did is not that different from what other prosecutors do on a regular basis in cases out of the spotlight.”
If you doubt that, take a look at news reports linked to Police/Prosecutor Misconduct. And why do so many prosecutors kick justice to the curb in pursuit of convictions and publicity? With a handful of rare exceptions, they are rewarded with higher offices. They warm the bench as judges. They get elected to state and federal offices. And while they almost certainly recognize the same unethical and illegal behaviors among the prosecutors who follow them, they aren’t going to throw any stones. Instead, they condone and perpetuate it.
Mike Nifong may have done justice a favor after all, however. He raised the curtain and showed us what goes on in too many prosecutors’ offices across the country. Now everyone knows. And as Professor Coleman said, “What's important now is that they not tolerate it."