Monday, July 16, 2007

Obstruction of Justice

In an April 13, 2007 article at Slate, Joseph Kennedy, associate professor of law at the University of North Carolina School of Law, considered whether Mike Nifong should face criminal prosecution for hijacking the Hoax. While Kennedy, a fellow at UNC's Parr Center for Ethics, outlines the case for prosecution of the former District Attorney, he left open the possibility that the State Bar Ethics trial would offer absolution for Nifong. The recently released Order of Discipline against Nifong makes clear that the crimes suggested by Kennedy merit investigation by the State Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Justice.
Did the DA in the Duke lacrosse case commit a crime? - Joseph Kennedy, Slate
When does a prosecution itself become a crime? It is well understood that prosecutors enjoy broad immunity from civil suit for their actions as prosecutors. That immunity, however, does not protect them from criminal liability. North Carolina District Attorney Mike Nifong faces possible disbarment for allegedly violating the rules of legal ethics in the Duke lacrosse case. A number of members of Congress have asked the Department of Justice to investigate his conduct, and the North Carolina attorney general has not ruled out criminal charges. Should Nifong face prosecution for his handling of the case?

Maybe. Nifong has not yet had a chance to present his defense to the ethics charges—that will happen in mid-June. But if Nifong indeed committed all of the acts alleged in the ethics complaint, he may also have obstructed justice in violation of state law and committed a federal civil rights crime.

The strongest basis for a prosecution on either charge would probably be the allegations that Nifong tried to suppress DNA test results that suggested the innocence of the defendants (three Duke lacrosse players he charged with raping a dancer whom the team hired to perform). Those results ruled out the defendants as the sources of DNA material found in the clothes and on the body of the accuser. Obstruction of justice extends to actions by attorneys aimed at suppressing evidence in criminal cases. Such cases are unusual but not completely unheard of. Last year, the Department of Justice charged one of its own prosecutors with obstruction of justice for allegedly failing to disclose exculpatory evidence. In that case, the prosecutor argued in a terrorism trial that he had sketches by the defendants of a Jordanian hospital targeted for attack. The charge is that the prosecutor also had photographs of the hospital that contradicted his claims about the sketches, and that he didn't disclose them. This may be the first time that a prosecutor has been charged with obstructing justice for failing to turn over exculpatory materials—evidence that suggests a defendant's innocence.

Obstruction of justice is a felony in North Carolina if it's committed with the intent to deceive. The state bar has accused Nifong of intentionally excluding the exculpatory DNA results from his expert's report and of subsequently misleading the trial judge as to their existence. If Nifong really intended to deceive the judge and the defense in order to prevent the introduction of those results into evidence at trial, he committed this felony.

A federal charge of depriving the defendants of their civil rights would get to the same issues by a different route. According to federal statute, it is a crime for any person acting "under color of law" to willfully deprive a person of a constitutional right. Acting "under color of law" essentially means using the power of the government, and it includes the actions of state prosecutors in criminal cases. The constitutional right at issue would be the defendants' well-established due process right to disclosure by the prosecutor of exculpatory evidence. Nifong would only be guilty of the federal civil rights charge if he specifically intended to deprive the defendants of their constitutional right by suppressing the test results. The statute does not require Nifong to have believed he was prosecuting innocent defendants—and to have gone after them anyway. Deliberately depriving a defendant of his constitutional rights is a crime if you believe him to be guilty.

The Disciplinary Hearing Commission’s findings of fact make clear that several of Nifong’s actions were intended to deceive the court and the defendants thereby constituting multiple instances of Obstruction of Justice as defined by Kennedy and required by Statute. The DHC also makes clear that Nifong, while "acting 'under color of law'," "specifically intended to deprive the defendants of their constitutional right by suppressing the test results."

Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, and Order of Discipline
The representations contained in Nifong's May 18 written discovery responses were intentional misrepresentations and intentional false statements of material fact to opposing counsel and to the Court...

Nifong's response to Judge Stephens' question was a misrepresentation and a false statement of material fact...

Nifong's representations to Judge Stephens at the June 22 hearing were intentional misrepresentations and intentional false statements of material fact to the Court and to opposing counsel...

Nifong did not comply with Judge Stephens' June 22 Order...

Nifong's statements and responses to Judge Smith at the September 22 hearing were intentional misrepresentations and intentional false statements of material fact to the Court and to opposing counsel...

Nifong's representations that he was unaware of the existence of DNA from multiple unidentified males on the rape kit items and/or that he was unaware of the exclusion of such evidence from DSI's written report, were intentional misrepresentations and intentional false statements of material fact to the Court and to opposing counsel...
Following his exoneration of the Duke Innocents, Attorney General Roy Cooper suggested that criminal charges against Nifong were a possibility to be considered after letting “the process work with the North Carolina State Bar” with the expectation that the State Bar’s investigation and hearing would offer more information on whether criminal charges were warranted.
Q: What about Mike Nifong? Do you think that his actions warrant a criminal investigation?

COOPER: Well, I think it's important that we let the process work with the North Carolina State Bar. Our investigation dealt mostly with the facts of this case and making a decision. Their investigation is dealing more with the pretrial comments and with the discovery issues on the DNA that our investigators really did not get into the details of that.

I think once the bar finishes that hearing process, then we will know more about that process when it comes.

Q: Is it a possibility?

COOPER: It's certainly a possibility, but I don't want to -- to speculate at this point. I think all options are certainly on the table.
If Cooper was genuinely looking to the State Bar for guidance before addressing criminal charges of obstruction of justice, it would appear that he now has the answers he was waiting for. In light of the DHC’s findings that indicate clearly that the defrocked DA committed felony obstruction of justice, Cooper now has no excuse for delaying a decision on pursuing criminal charges against Nifong. Given his public suggestion that the possibility of criminal charges remained up and the more would be known about whether charges are warrant upon conclusion of the State Bar investigation and hearing, the AG must now either commence a criminal investigation or explain why he has decided, after waiting for findings which clearly indicate that charges are warranted, to give Nifong a pass for his felony.

As with AG Cooper and the pass given to Nifong on felony obstruction of justice charges, the Department of Justice remains silent on federal charges despite the clear outline presented by the DHC.


Anonymous said...

Well, we shall see.

bill anderson said...

Good job, Liestoppers! However, the article appeared in 2007, NOT 2006, so you will want to change that date.

I always have said that there is enough material for the state to bring criminal charges against Nifong and the others. This post further makes that case. What is lacking is not the law or evidence; what is lacking is the will.

Anonymous said...

Bringing charges would require the DOJ to admit that white males have civil rights worthy of protection. Won't happen.

Anonymous said...

I'm here to lobby that the term "Hoax" be dropped in favor of the term "Frame." As Liestoppers is the keeper of the tablets as far as the DukeLax case is concerned, this change would be profound.


bill anderson said...

I think that Abb is correct. It was a frame, and nothing else.

Anonymous said...

I agree that the word "frame" is more accurate. "Hoax" has a connotation of trickery in the form of a joke nplayed on others. This case was no joke.

scott said...

In addition to "trickery" as pointed out by Anon @ 1:22 PM, the term "hoax" also conjures up an image of cleverness on some level. In this case, Nifong, Gottlieb, Wilson, Himan, et. al., knew nothing of cleverness. They behaved like thugs who felt they could get away with it simply because they had gotten away with it in the past.

I join the others in support of the motion to, henceforth, refer to this as a frame.

Anonymous said...

Carolyn says:

How about calling it a 'lie'? A damned lie by a stinking liar manipulated by a stupid liar with help from bigoted liars.

Works for me.

Anonymous said...

I was disappointed you did not have non of the above as an option is your "fifth ammendent rights poll. I think the committee will only be looking into the LE aspect. As Kc called for bloggers to vote for Addison and Levicy, do you consider you poll unbiased and valid?

Anonymous said...

While I think there is a good argument for allowing the state of North Korealina to have first shot at Nifong and his enablers in the Durham PD, it doesn't appear there is any serious effort being made by Roy Cooper's office to bring charges. There may be ongoing dialog between Cooper and USAG Gonzales, but I wouldn't count on it. I am particularly disappointed in the utter silence of US Senators Dole and Burr who have an obligation to take a stand on the case. I'll remember their silence when they run for re-election.

LieStoppers said...


You are correct: "None of the above" should have been included in our poll.

I don't, however, understand your concern about a comment on another website effecting the validity or bias of a poll found here. As it is, an on-line poll of this sort, whether posted here or anywhere else, has little to no tangible statistical value and reflects only the selections made by those who have chosen to participate regardless of whether or not another website touts choices.


Anonymous said...

Readers of this blog should take a look at the portrait of Nifong as victim at

see the July 16 post. The man needs to be educated about this case. He seems to think poor mikey was disbarred because he called some lacrosse players a bad name.

sceptical said...

Write to:

Anna Mills Wagoner,
U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of North Carolina,
P. O. Box 1858
Greensboro, NC 27402

Phone: 336-333-5351

Urge her to undertake an investigation of this case concerning due process and civil rights violations in this case, as well as obstruction of justice.

kbp said...

I've yet to see any person point out the "obstruction of justice" law in NC.

Anonymous said...

The poster above at 1:05pm refers to yesterday's (July 16) "Perspective" article on the "leave the man alone blog." The entry starts out:

"Mike Nifong, the disgraced prosecutor in the Duke lacrosse case, was a scapegoat. Not to say he wasn't wrong or unethical or even criminal. However, relative to the conduct of other attorneys in other prominent sports related cases, he is a choir boy."

She then explains that Nifong was disbarred "mostly for called the accused, 'hooligans:'"

"Do you know how difficult it is to get disbarred? Difficult. Very, very difficult. Most cases of disbarment center around the theft of client's money. Nifong was disbarred mostly for calling the accused, "hooligans."

Next we are told to excuse Nifong's withholding of DNA evidence because it wasn't "malicious" but rather the result of overwork and the limited resources of a poor public servant:

"He was also guilty of some inappropriate (but not necessarily malicious) withholding of evidence and maybe the general understaffed and overworked neglect that plagues the realities of working in a prosecutors' office (or typical law practice, for that matter)."

Despite Nifong's access to the resources of the state of NC and the DPD, we are asked to feel sorry for Nifong because:

"The defense team had vast resources and used those resources to punish Nifong. It's possible that Nifong was the vile man the defense painted him to be. It's possible that he's not."

Read the post at

gs said...
Nifong July 26 hearing will be just to discuss issues.

Contempt hearing will be rescheduled.

At least Nifong gets to spend more money

Anonymous said...

I remember dopey Beth Karas on Courtv, after a picture of the defense attorneys and Nifong in court, saying "It is almost like David and Goliath". How more dishonest can these talking heads be when they discount the powere of the state. I turn all the people off if they come on the program. Most of all, KImberly Guilfoil and Geraldo - "they will be racing each other to the police station to plead out." Gotta get these folk off the air.

Anonymous said...

You will probably excommunicate me for this. If you can not see how DIW (major influence), calling its readers to vote for Levicy and Addison, in your poll. The numbers jumped up dramaticaly - that is just not fair.