The man who prosecuted three members of the Duke University lacrosse team on charges that they raped a stripper at a party was disbarred for prosecutorial misconduct and had to serve a day in jail for contempt of court. Relying on testimony, later recanted, from the stripper herself, North Carolina prosecutor Mike Nifong stepped over the line when he withheld exculpatory evidence from the defendants, an act of professional misconduct that cost him his license to practice law.
The man who is prosecuting six high school students in Jena, Louisiana, on charges of attempted murder appeared before reporters this week to justify his prosecution, which arose out of a schoolyard fight. The conviction of one of the students (the others haven’t been tried yet) was overturned on appeal earlier this week because the prosecutor illegally tried the defendant, a juvenile, as an adult. The kid was sitting in a cell Thursday while crowds of protesters descended on the town of 8,000 in protest.
The Jena fight was the culmination of a racially tense school year. Conflict arose when black students insisted on the right to sit under a tree on school grounds that was reserved for whites. The next day, nooses were found hanging from the tree. In the midst of the conflict, Reed Walter, the Louisiana prosecutor, showed up at the school with armed police and announced to the black students present that he could “make your lives disappear” with the stroke of a pen. Violence ensued. Nobody is recommending Walter’s disbarment.
The legal distinction between the two cases seems to be that the complaining witness in the North Carolina case was a black kid and the defendants were white, while in the Louisiana case, the complaining witness is a white kid, and the defendants are all black.
Prosecutorial excess against whites on behalf of blacks is a grave matter, a miscarriage of justice that demands the application of harsh penalties. Prosecutorial excess against blacks on behalf of whites, by contrast, is a trivial matter, so common in our system that it’s taken for granted.
Twelve dozen years post-emancipation and 50 years into the civil rights movement, we haven’t progressed much as a people. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that the legal system reflects our ignorance and brutality, but we ought to be outraged.