Prosecutors Feeling Impact of 'Duke Effect'
New Jersey prosecutor Paul DeGroot knew it wouldn't take long for the Duke University lacrosse rape case to wreak havoc on prosecutors.
"It's becoming a tool and a buzz word for defense attorneys to say, 'Look what happened at Duke,'" DeGroot said.
He speaks from experience.
Shortly after the rape charges were dropped against the three lacrosse players -- and the prosecutor, Durham County, N.C., District Attorney Mike Nifong, was hit with ethics charges for allegedly withholding DNA evidence -- a defense lawyer in a recent drug case tried to use the Duke case against DeGroot.
"He said to the jury, 'We all know a prosecutor can indict a ham sandwich. Just look at what happened in that case down in Duke,'" recalled DeGroot, senior assistant prosecutor in Passaic County, N.J. "I objected as soon as that came out. And I made sure I added to say, 'In this county, we don't try cases like that.'"
Prosecutors across the country are seeing fallout from the Duke case, as defense attorneys use it to discredit other criminal cases and paint them as overzealous prosecutors with something to prove.
In Texas, one defense attorney recently cited the case during voir dire, and again in closing argument, in an assault case involving a teacher accused of pinning down a female student while other students beat her. The lawyer reminded jurors about what happened at Duke. The defendant was found not guilty in three minutes.
"Prosecutors should be worried," said defense attorney Edmund "Skip" Davis, the Texas attorney who cited the Duke case in the recent assault trial and plans to cite it in a rape trial next week.
In the teacher assault case, Davis asked jurors during voir dire if they were familiar with the "tragedy" that happened in the Duke case and whether they thought it was a shoddy investigation. At closing, he reminded jurors not to rush to judgement to avoid "that tragedy that nearly fell upon those kids at Duke."
"I told them, 'Just because someone hollers out that a crime has been committed just does not make it so,'" Davis said. "And the Duke case made a perfect example of that."
In Ohio, criminal defense attorney Ian Friedman of Ian N. Friedman & Associates in Cleveland said he plans to ask jurors during voir dire about the Duke case in an upcoming rape trial to see how they feel about false accusations and mishandled investigations.
"Everyone in my firm is well aware that this [Duke] example should be raised -- during voir dire, during closing arguments ... because this may cause a jury not to rush the judgment," Friedman said.
Friedman said that while defense lawyers for years have addressed wrongful convictions with jurors, the Duke case is a more powerful tool because so many people know about it. It put the presumption of innocence back on the radar screen, he said.
Prosecutors, meanwhile, believe that the Duke case is tarnishing their image, and could potentially hurt future cases.
"[That case] definitely is going to make it difficult for us, there's no question about it," said Joshua Marquis, district attorney in Clatsop County, Ore.
Marquis said that case, like the Duke case, sends a strong message to prosecutors: Strictly adhere to the rules of professional conduct and don't publicly talk about your case.
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