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Nifong's Post Mortem Begins

With Durham, N.C., district attorney Michael B. Nifong's disbarment Saturday, the only surprise may be how quickly the disciplinary commission reached its decision. As Michael S. Frisch observes at Legal Profession Blog, such swift action in a lawyer-discipline case is rare and, no doubt, came about "in large part because the former prosecutor threw in the towel." In a press release, North Carolina State Bar President Steven D. Michael seemed to suggest that the committee's swift action was because "misconduct of the sort Mr. Nifong engaged in is vary rare" and that the bar wanted to make clear "that the ethical rules restricting pretrial public comment and requiring prosecutors to turn over exculpatory evidence will be strictly enforced." The chair of the disciplinary panel, F. Lane Williamson, in announcing the decision, was even more direct:

"[T]here’s no discipline short of disbarment that would be appropriate in this case given the magnitude of the offenses we have found and the effect upon the profession and the public."

One downside of all this, observes Frisch at Legal Profession Blog, is that with so much attention given to the case, the general public's "take-away" may be "that bar discipline is both swift and sure"  -- when it is rarely either. Another downside, says Jeralyn Merritt at the blog TalkLeft, would be to leave the impression that Nifong's case was a complete anomaly when the facts show otherwise:

"While many, and perhaps most prosecutors don't cheat and lie, Nifong is not the only one. This happens to many defendants all over the country who don't have the resources for top-flight lawyers who will fight for them to the end."

She points to an Innocence Project report on cases discovered through DNA testing that "are replete with evidence of fraud or misconduct by prosecutors or police departments."

If it is true that DAs have been given looser rein up until now, the Nifong case may mark a turning point, says John Wesley Hall Jr. at Fourth Amendment.com. He recalls that he once had a prosecutor deny on the record that there was any exculpatory evidence when a police officer had already told him that another man had confessed.

"The punishment? No contempt, no referral, no nothing. DAs are judged by different standards, at least until now.

"In the end, this proves that there is no double standard in lawyer discipline, and some disciplinary authorities will take it prosecutorial misconduct seriously."

One postscript: At his blog Durham-in-Wonderland , KC Johnson points out that Nifong's resignation takes effect July 13. "So for almost one month," he writes, "the 'minister of justice' of Durham County will be someone that, according to the DHC, lied to the court, to defense attorneys, and to the State Bar."

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on June 18, 2007 at 05:17 PM | Permalink | Comments (42)

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