By Ed Wiley III, BET.com News Staff Writer
RALEIGH, N.C. (Posted June 21, 2007) – A little over a year after Durham (N.C.) District Attorney Mike Nifong went after three White Duke University lacrosse players accused of gang-raping a Black student at an off-campus party, he’s been fired, had his 30-year-old law license stripped, and has become the poster child for shady dealings in the U.S. justice system. He could still face civil suits and even criminal prosecution.
The speed at which “justice” kicked into high gear for the three White men accused of committing crimes against a Black woman is dazzling. But for many African Americans, including lawyers who have represented Black men falsely accused of rape only to see their prosecutors get off without so much as a rap on the knuckles, the entire Duke case is a study in racism and classism.
Dr. Manning Marable, a professor of history at Columbia University in New York, said that moments after the state bar announced its decision to prosecute Nifong, he and several associates, including a judge, two lawyers and an anthropologist, struggled to recall a similar precedent.
“None of us could come up with a single case in U.S. history where a district attorney lost his or her license or was removed from public office because of prosecutorial misconduct involving a Black defendant,” said Marable, who runs the Center for Contemporary Black History. “I’m not speaking to the merits of this case because I do think the prosecutor made egregious errors of judgment in pursuing it, but this is highly unusual.”
Even the executive director of the North Carolina State Bar, acknowledged to BET.com that during his 27 years with the association he could not recall another case of a state, county or city district attorney being disbarred.
“We do get calls of misconduct periodically …, and in those instances we do investigate,” Thomas Lunsford said. “But, no, I don’t recall,” instances of others being disbarred, although some prosecutors have been “disciplined” in the past.
In the most recent act of humiliation against the defrocked prosecutor, on Tuesday the Durham County Sheriff snatched his badge and keys, and the North Carolina Legislature unanimously passed a bill granting Gov. Mike Easley the power to remove him from office.
As for the young men wronged by the prosecutor, university President Richard H. Brodhead apologized profusely for the “heavy toll” that the ordeal has exacted on the three players, Reade Seligmann, Dave Evans and Collin Finnerty, and vowed “to work to protect others from similar injustices in the criminal justice system in the future.” Even more significantly, this week the university announced that it had reached a settlement (for an undisclosed amount of money) with the trio, a move designed to head off future lawsuits and to help make things right with the accused.
“Obvious Racial Component”
Contrast that, then, to what happened to dozens of Black men falsely accused of rape, including one who was just minutes from being put to death before a judge intervened.
A BET.com review of just the cases handled by the nonprofit Innocence Project shows that since 2006, there have been more than a dozen African-American men released or pardoned from prison after serving lengthy sentences for rapes and/or murders they never committed. Those innocent Black men had spent an average of almost 18 years behind bars and would still be there if not for the dogged labor of a group working independently of the government justice system. Most were victims of overzealous prosecutors, some with political aspirations, others hungry to nail a crime on any Black man who would satisfy the bloodlust of an angry, afraid and often racist community.
Of those cases reviewed by BET.com, only two had received compensation by the state. They are James Tillman, a 26-year-old homeless Connecticut man, who served 18 years of a 45-year sentence for rape, kidnapping and robbery, and Arthur Mumphrey, a 24-year-old man who served 18 years of a 35-year sentence after being falsely convicted for repeatedly raping a 13-year-old girl.
Lives at StakeThe issue of prosecutorial misconduct is one that has been on the radar screen of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) for some time. Christina Swarns, who runs LDF’s criminal justice project, said that the issue of misconduct comes up frequently.
She cited the case of Delma Banks, a Black Texas death row inmate whose appeals were denied one after another, even though the conviction and death sentence violated three U.S. Supreme Court rulings. In the Banks case, prosecutors struck all Black prospective jurors from the jury pool; withheld critical evidence that supported the defense; and looked the other way while their paid witnesses lied on the stand. On Dec. 12, 2003, with only 10 minutes to spare, the U.S. Supreme Court intervened to halt Banks’ execution.
“We see prosecutorial misconduct in a lot of cases, particularly Death penalty cases,” Swarns said. “Was money and race part of the calculus that led to the D.A. in North Carolina being disbarred immediately? Yes. Are there African-American and poor men in prisons on death rows all over America who suffered trials with far more egregious acts of misconduct than we saw in the Duke case, absolutely. Most of them have no luxury of high-powered defense teams like the Duke young men had. This is an age-old story.”
The Duke outcome “reflects how deep racism is in the bosoms of so many White people who would not think of raising a finger when prosecutorial misconduct led to years of imprisonment and even death for Black men and women,” says Derrick Bell, visiting professor of law at New York University and author of such books as “And We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice” and “Race, Racism and American Law.”
“The patterns may be somewhat more subtle than at an earlier time when there would not have been even an inquiry when a Black woman charged White men with rape. Now, when the charges are taken seriously and then disproved, the public comes down hard on the prosecutor. The worse part of all of this is that Black people (or most of us) see the obvious racial component in all of this, while most Whites neither see nor want to see. The inability to see the obvious racial aspects in so many issues – from slavery to segregation to affirmative action – could eventually bring this country down.”