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Legal Ethics

Disbarment Unusual for Prosecutors

Posted Jun 25, 2007 9:25 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Michael Nifong sought the limelight when he charged three Duke lacrosse players with rape. All that attention may be a reason an ethics body gave him an unusually harsh penalty for misconduct in the case.

Discipline is “light or nonexistent” for prosecutors who fail to disclose evidence, even in death penalty cases, Adam Liptak writes in the New York Times.

Nifong was disbarred and ordered to leave his job as Durham County, N.C., District Attorney because of his handling of the Duke rape prosecution. An ethics body concluded he withheld evidence, misled the court and inflamed the public.

“You have rogue prosecutors all over the country who have engaged in far, far more egregious misconduct, and in a pattern of cases,” Pace University law professor Bennett Gershman told the newspaper. “And nothing happens.”

The Chicago Tribune wrote about 381 cases in which defendants got a new trial because of prosecutorial misconduct. None of the prosecutors was convicted of a crime or disbarred.

Motive is another reason prosecutors get to keep their jobs in such cases. Usually there is no proof that the failure to disclose evidence is intentional. The mistake is instead attributed to carelessness or an oversight.

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