Monday, June 18, 2007

People as pawns

Mike Nifong is taking a rightful beating in the press. He violated the public trust when he refused to accept reality and proceeded to extend the now infamous Duke Lacrosse rape case. By now you know the gory details of how Nifong tried to parlay his diligent pursuit of the case into strong support from the black community in the Raleigh Durham area.

People have accused Nifong of bowing to pressure from the black community. As soon as this case was reported, people were worried that an African American stripper would see her right to justice overridden by the rich white parents of the boys who assaulted her. As it turns out, Crystal Gail Mangum was lying but since Nifong refused to call her on it nobody knows why. She should be charged but until Nifong is hung out to dry, she’ll remain on the back burner.

Most of the pressure came from the press, namely ESPN, who loved digging into a scandal involving spoiled rich white boys. Every once in a while sports reporters like to pretend to be real journalists. Following their lead the rest of the networks jumped aboard and the entire nation wanted to see heads roll. In Nifong’s defense, he had to press forward. If he made the call to drop the case in the midst of the media storm nobody would have bought it. Nifong had no choice but to wait. Sadly, he allowed himself to become too invested in winning and in the end he was guilty of pursuing what can only be described as malicious prosecution. The press even dropped the bone after DNA evidence all but exonerated the boys.

The press had egg on its face and everybody blamed Nifong. It didn’t matter that virtually every journalist who “covered” the story took the alleged victim’s side and nobody seemed to remember that the big concern was that the rich parents of the accused boys would bury justice under a big pile of legal currency. We all share part of the blame for the way everything snowballed but Nifong will take the fall. As well he should, he was the one with a legal obligation to drop the charges in spite of what the press and public might think. That doesn’t absolve the media of its ethical responsibility to not sensationalize a story.

Some outlets, particularly those with ultra-conservative leanings, have expressed great sympathy for the lacrosse players. While there’s no question they were subjected to excruciating public humiliation, they were not victims of some great social injustice. The system ultimately worked for them. They were wrongfully accused but they didn’t even have to stand trial. Yes, they endured scrutiny but that’s part of life. Let’s not forget that it was their own reckless behavior that put them in the position to be accused. The entire Lacrosse team had a bad reputation heading into this mess and it was their decision to have a raucous party complete with strippers. They may or may not have broken any laws but you don’t have to break laws to pay the consequences for your actions. If anything these kids learned a valuable lesson. At least they didn’t have to go to prison.

Most people can’t imagine being accused of a crime they didn’t commit. That’s a sentiment often expressed by the members of the pity party that has formed around the Duke Lacrosse boys. Being falsely accused is nothing compared to being wrongfully convicted. These kids didn’t even come close to enduring that. Their case didn’t even go to trial.

We have no idea how many people are wrongfully convicted every year. Nifong is nothing. Prosecuting attorneys often have political aspirations and they hand their hats on conviction rates. Prosecutors are more concerned with wins and losses than they are with justice. We’d like to think that’s not the case but it is. We know for a fact that people get sentenced to death for crimes they didn’t commit. If we can sentence the wrong person to death what’s going on with lesser crimes?

Rudy Giuliani made a name for himself as a hard-nosed prosecutor. Some people loved his stance on crime but there is some concern over his zealous pursuit of criminals, particularly the high profile cases that garnered plenty of media attention. He parlayed his tough persona into a successful bid to become mayor of New York where his administration was credited with cleaning up New York but at a steep price. The deaths of Amadou Diallo and Patrick Dorismond seemed to be a direct result of Giuliani’s hard line style.

Another dangerous aspect of the criminal justice system is the shameless cronyism. In Columbus Ohio two men, Tim Howard and Gary Lamar James were sentenced to death for back in 1977. They were accused killing a security guard during a bank robbery. Both men were arrested when they contacted the police department to clear their names once they heard they were accused but their desire to set the record straight was not taken into account by assistant prosecutor George Ellis who clearly suspended his sense of justice.

The evidence simply didn’t hold up. Reasonable doubt is so painfully evident a modern day prosecutor would have refused to go forward and a reasonable defense attorney would have had the case dismissed. But this was Columbus, Ohio in 1977 and the defendants were two black men. It wasn’t too long ago that being black was all the evidence any jury needed to see. That didn’t stop George Ellis from withholding evidence and quite possibly suborning perjury. Activities he steadfastly denies to this day.

And where is he today? Still at the Franklin County Prosecutor’s office working for Ron O’Brien as chief legal counsel. It’s no surprise that O’Brien, who started his career at the prosecutor’s office as a legal intern in 1972, utilized taxpayer resources to prevent Centurion Ministries from getting a fair shot at justice for Howard and James. O’Brien’s got a vested interest in the continued suspension of justice.

Ultimately Howard and James were freed after spending nearly 30 years behind bars and the men responsible for putting them there were roundly chastised for the miscarriage of justice. Chastised but not punished.

Ron O’Brien wouldn’t stop there. When it came down to compensating Tim Howard and Gary Lamar James for the lifetime that had been stolen from them, O’Brien refused consider any financial reward and insisted on a wrongful incarceration trial. These men might have been found not guilty after spending 30 years in prison but if they wanted to receive any remuneration for their trouble they would have to prove themselves innocent.

Tim Howard went through the wrongful incarceration trial and was awarded $2.5 million but he died of a heart attack less than a year later. Gary Lamar James quickly settled for $1.5 million rather than endure the trial process. Surely he heard the ticking of the clock. Would you spend 30 years in prison for $1.5 million? Would Ron O’Brien?

Let’s not forget that these men were sentenced to die and would have been executed had some touchy feely liberal not managed to suspend the death penalty in Ohio. Howard and James were spared death in 1978 when their sentences were automatically commuted to life. Had they been executed nobody would have known of their innocence.

At least they got out. Of course, Tim Howard didn’t get much of a chance to make up for lost time but maybe Gary Lamar James will. Maybe. Prison has a funny way of taking an exponential number of years. You might serve six but you lose a few more on the back end. People who do time often see their life expectancies shrink much in the same was smokers and diabetics do.

But what about the people who don’t get out? Organizations like Centurion Ministries only have a fraction of the resources prosecuting attorneys around the country do and there are plenty of corrupt offices around the country where political allies take turns running for office. Let’s also bear in mind that nobody’s out there trying to overturn wrongful sentences for armed robbery or grand theft auto. If a sentence is under 10 years it’s probably not worth the effort. Unless you talk to the person doing 10 years. Compare that with prosecutors who see the criminal justice system as a mechanism for publicity. Giuliani loved to march his defendants through a gauntlet of reporters and camera men. Do you think small time politicians are more or less inclined to exploit media attention?

Ron O’Brien has never worked in the private sector. Most of his career has been in the Franklin County Prosecutor’s Office with his brief stint in the City Prosecutor’s office bridging the gap from his run as an appointed lackey to the elected position he currently holds. Voters might be able to send him a message but in the inbred world of the criminal justice system it’s hard to break the cycle. These are lawyers and they have created checks and balances that ensure that lawyers remain in control.

And Ron O’Brien is not exactly a bad guy. He was way off base in this situation but overall it seems as though his office does a decent job. That we know of. Again: how many people are serving time for crimes they didn’t commit?

The only answer is imposing stiff penalties on prosecutors who get caught pursuing these cases. Since the Duke lacrosse boys didn’t even suffer the indignity of a trial, a lengthy prison sentence for Nifong might be a little over the top but he must be held accountable to the people he was supposedly representing. He didn’t commit a crime against the accused young men but he did commit a crime against the people who elected him. In former assistant prosecutor Ellis’ case justice demands he pay a price. He stole almost 30 years from two men and he did it on behalf of the people. We should at least have a trial to determine the extent of his culpability and allow the people to determine his fate.

Elected positions generally possess great power. As citizens we trust our elected officials to be fair, honorable and just. Those elected officials must wield that trust and power responsibly. When the abuse of power, or even a lapse in judgment, results in innocent people being killed, put to death or otherwise harmed, punishment should be swift and severe. We know that we can’t trust elected officials to uphold justice but we can be certain they will look out for their best interests.

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