- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 12, 2007

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

When Mike Nifong reported to jail Friday to serve a 24-hour sentence in Durham, N.C., a small band of diehard supporters carried signs that said, “We believe in your integrity and goodness.” I wonder if they believe in the tooth fairy, too.

Every wicked man is right in his own eyes, the Book of Proverbs says. But that doesn’t mean the rest of us should cheer him on.

Nifong is the former Durham County district attorney who brought the notoriously bogus rape case against three Duke University lacrosse team members, a rape case that turned out to have no rape.

So far, the only person convicted of anything is the prosecutor. A breathtaking list of procedural abuses led to his disbarment, resignation and prosecution. The abuses included the withholding by his office of DNA evidence for more than nine months that proved the three athletes’ innocence.

I hope Nifong spent his night in the pokey thinking about the young lives he ruined. I also hope he thought about the voters he flimflammed along with a national audience, all so he could be re-elected in his 40-percent black district and maximize his pension.

That narrative comes through with painful clarity in a new book, “Until Proven Innocent: Political Correctness and the Shameful Injustices of the Duke Lacrosse Rape Case,” by Stuart Taylor, a National Journal columnist and Newsweek contributor, and K.C. Johnson, a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York.

Nifong’s overreaching “may be the worst prosecutorial misconduct ever exposed while it was happening,” Mr. Taylor told me in an interview.

Messrs. Taylor and Johnson were early skeptics of Nifong’s case. Their book offers a chilling portrait of how the criminal justice system can nail and punish the innocent. Usually the innocent are poor people who lack the money, connections or other resources to mount a proper defense. In its concluding chapters, the book recounts several striking examples of poor blacks and Hispanics, in particular, sent to death row but later released as a result of misconduct by prosecutors.

But it was the racial and socioeconomic lineup in the Duke case — upscale white male students accused by a poor black female stripper — that excited passions in a different ideological direction. Left-progressive activists, pundits and intellectuals allied with the prosecutor to steamroll over any presumption of the boys’ innocence.

For some petitioners and op-ed writers, the young jocks provided too convenient a target as symbols of white male hegemony, runaway testosterone and every other agenda that could be hung on them like tree ornaments. Voices as varied as the New York Times and CNN star Nancy Grace come in for a well-deserved skewering here.

Think about it. If any institutions should be engaged in the critical reasoning that it takes to analyze situations like these, weighing claims and counterclaims, and sorting out facts from rumors, it is the media and college professors. The university, of all places, should teach not only good ideas but also the rational thinking that leads one to a lifetime of producing good ideas.

In that spirit, it is important to note the solid journalism that did occur, even if it failed remarkably to have much of an impact during the months in which Nifong’s freight train surged ahead. Besides Mr. Taylor, there was the late Ed Bradley, the CBS reporter who died before the charges were dismissed, “60 Minutes” producer Michael Radutzky, and MSNBC’s Dan Abrams. Each courageously pursued the growing holes in the case, despite unsubstantiated countercharges by diehard critics who would rather punish the messenger than listen to uncomfortable facts.

Take heed of the lessons left by Nifong, for we are unlikely to see his likes again soon. Prosecutors are rarely punished for breaking the rules that ensure a defendant receives a fair trial. A 1999 Chicago Tribune investigation, for example, found 381 murder convictions nationwide that were reversed since 1963 because prosecutors withheld evidence or manipulated witnesses to lie. Yet not one of those prosecutors was publicly sanctioned or disbarred. The Center for Public Integrity, an investigative journalism group, found similarly disturbing results after looking at more than 2,000 reversals of criminal cases from 1970 to 2003.

“This entire experience has opened my eyes up to a tragic world of injustice I never knew existed,” said Reade Seligmann, one of the three accused Duke students. He and his teammates were fortunate to have the resources to fight back. Most defendants don’t. That’s all the more reason for those of us who believe in justice to scrupulously avoid pursuing personal agendas at the expense of the truth, no matter how much it may satisfy our preconceived notions.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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