Playing fair in the US Attorney's office

August 28, 2013 

A United States attorney is appointed by and serves at the pleasure of the president of the United States, often handling high-profile federal prosecutions. And though being a “USA,” as lawyers call it, is landing a political appointment, the ideal is that the roughly 100 staff members in the office, about half of them lawyers, should be nonpartisan and even nonpolitical.

In North Carolina, the office became somewhat controversial under Republican appointee George Holding, named by President George W. Bush, because of a number of investigations and prosecutions of Democrats.

Holding resigned the office after extending his stay to continue the investigation of former Sen. John Edwards in a campaign finance case. Edwards was acquitted of one charge, and the jury deadlocked on others as some lawyers criticized bringing the case at all. But that is a judgment call. Holding is now the U.S. congressman from North Carolina’s 13th District.

What must not be in question is whether the USA office plays by the rules when it comes to individual cases. And the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, a most serious group indeed, has raised stern questions about the office’s failure to share some evidence in a timely fashion with defendants as required by the rules of discovery. A couple of cases cited happened when Holding was in office; the other was under current U.S. Attorney Thomas Walker, appointed by President Obama.

Among the problems were failing to give a defendant a full case file until a week before a trial, not turning over evidence to a defendant in a firearms case and allowing the false testimony of a witness to stand without correction. As these failures could affect the outcome of a trial, they’re serious. And the court has sent information to the office of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, where it will get scrutiny.

Following the rule of law must be the only acceptable goal for a person with a powerful office such as federal prosecutor. Walker is appropriately determined to stop any problems. When the prosecution doesn’t play fair, innocent people can be harmed, and the system of justice is undermined.

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