Leaders say penalty will improve lawyers' image

It shows that DAs aren't above law

Staff WriterJune 17, 2007 

Mike Nifong's nationally televised dismissal from practicing law Saturday was also an effort to restore some luster to the tainted image of justice.

Lawyers, and prosecutors in particular, have been taking a beating in recent months as the rape charges Nifong pressed against three former Duke lacrosse players fell apart and the prosecutor was accused of misconduct.

After a five-day disciplinary hearing on Nifong's handling of the case, defenders of the profession hope the public will judge lawyers and the justice system on the way they drummed Nifong out instead of the way Nifong treated the Duke lacrosse team.

"I think it speaks for itself that the system has worked," said Garry Frank, president of the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys and the DA for Alexander, Davidson, Davie and Iredell counties.

Perhaps most important, Frank said, it shows that even prosecutors are not above the law. Frank said that message is important amid a seemingly "steady drumbeat" of claims "that there is nothing to curb the power of a district attorney."

In a written statement, Steven D. Michael, president of the N.C. State Bar, also highlighted the importance of professional discipline. "[T]he Bar's strong response to this situation made clear that the ethical rules restricting pre-trial public comment and requiring prosecutors to turn over exculpatory evidence will be strictly enforced," he wrote.

"Those rules are important because they ensure the fundamental right to a fair trial that every citizen is guaranteed in our constitution," he added.

The decision was a major one for the bar, which has been criticized for gentle treatment of other prosecutors accused of serious misconduct.

"I think it should give people confidence that the State Bar has now apparently learned how to accept its responsibilities to govern the actions of lawyers, and in particular prosecutors," said Mary Ann Tally, a defense lawyer who has followed the State Bar's handling of misconduct cases. "It seemed that in the past they had just turned a blind eye."

There may never be another case quite like Nifong's, as prosecutors and State Bar administrators pointed out. Duke law professor Tom Metzloff said he expects many to take lessons from it.

"The legal system works with test cases," said Metzloff, who also serves on the State Bar's ethics committee, which had nothing to do with the disbarment of Nifong. "We take one case, and we have to learn from it. This is an important test case that will have a lot of lessons for a lot of lawyers."

Staff writer Toby Coleman can be reached at 829-8937 or toby.coleman@newsobserver.com.

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