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The Growing Abuse Of Prosecutorial Power


The recent Duke University rape case merely highlighted what any criminal defense attorney today knows to be an everyday fact: prosecutors are increasingly more interested in their “win stats” and advancing their careers than in seeking justice.  If nothing else, this case brought an ugly reality  — one pervasive in the DUI arena — to the light of day:


Lots of Prosecutors Go Too Far; Most Get Away With It

Washington Post.  June 24 — It was an extraordinary scene when Michael B. Nifong, the district attorney in Durham, N.C., took the stand to defend his law license after his failed crusade to convict innocent Duke University lacrosse players of gang rape. He had no more success with his own defense. After being disbarred for “dishonesty, fraud, deceit and misrepresentation,” he was suspended from his job last week and now faces a possible lawsuit in civil court.

What’s most remarkable about the whole scene, though, is how rare it is. Nifong’s misconduct was hardly unusual: Some of the most high-profile cases in history have involved strikingly similar acts of prosecutorial abuse. But instead of being punished, the worst violators are often lionized for their aggressive styles — maybe even rewarded with a cable television show…

This abuse occurred because the critical safeguard of prosecutorial discretion — the decision whether to pursue a case — didn’t protect the suspects. Despite what you see on television, the chances of being convicted in a criminal case are extremely high. Grand juries are said to be willing to “indict a ham sandwich,” and it’s not uncommon for prosecution offices to have conviction rates of 90 percent or higher. Some prosecutors grow callous and cavalier about their role. When told that he had secured the death penalty against an innocent man, a Texas prosecutor once reportedly boasted that “any prosecutor can convict a guilty man; it takes a great prosecutor to convict an innocent man.”

Drunk driving cases are a favorite target for this type of unethical zealotry.  The simple fact is that a District Attorney needs to get reelected, and this usually requires high conviction rates in his office — and an endorsement from Mothers Against Drunk Driving for being “tough on drunk drivers”….whatever it takes. 

(Thanks to Brian Leininger.)

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