Guest column: Why character is important when selecting district attorneys
Most of us felt relieved when we learned that Mike Nifong, the rogue district attorney from Durham, N.C., was facing serious charges for his abuse of power in the Duke lacrosse case. However, the search for justice does not end when a single corrupt prosecutor is caught and removed.
The sad truth is that the list of prosecutors who have put pride and politics ahead of justice is longer than any of us would like to believe. Last year, Bob Herbert of the New York Times chronicled quite a list of just such occurrences. He concluded that analysis by pointing to the government’s “Pervasive indifference to injustice in the justice system.” Those are harsh words, but he reached that conclusion only after pointing to innocent People unnecessarily going to prison and much more. We must be certain that the district attorneys we elect possess unimpeachable character, because the reality is that we place a special burden on the government, those who prosecute cases for all of us, to be sure that all of their investigations are thorough, that confessions are not coerced, that line-ups are done correctly, that forensic testing is accurate and that those test results are readily shared.
All prosecutors must also be confident that the witnesses they call (law enforcement people, experts, snitches, eye witnesses, etc.) are competent and honest. And, unlike Mike Nifong, we expect them to be ready to admit a mistake and change directions the moment contradictory facts emerge. Unfortunately, some honest-appearing prosecutors with latent character flaws suffer a lapse when they are driven by a zeal to win, political ambition or pride in wrongly holding to an announced position. Finally, most district attorneys do their jobs very well and set a high moral tone for all of their staff. Nevertheless, When one prosecutor shortchanges justice, that is one too many. And when such actions do harm to innocent citizens like those Duke students or put an innocent person in prison, that, also, is intolerable. We can only hope that those citizens in Durham, N.C., like all the rest of us, will become more vigilant in selecting only those district attorneys who possess impeccable character and for each of us to persist in holding all prosecutors accountable for maintaining the highest possible standards of the justice ideal.
Dr. Richard J. Crawford is a former communication professor who specialized in the study of the American jury at both University of Northern Colorado and the University of Colorado. He was a founder and past national president of the American Society of Trial Consultants and served as a trial consultant in more than 400 trials. He and his wife, Jan Marie, have their second home in Keystone.
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