Whenever I read articles dealing with prosecutorial misconduct, I invariably find a statement similar to this: “Most U.S. prosecutors are ethical and try to do the right thing, but there are a few who engage in unethical behavior.” In other words, every barrel has a few rotten apples, but most are just fine.
I used to believe that myself, but no longer. In fact, given what we know about human nature and the functions of boundaries, when prosecutors know that they face no consequences for their own behavior no matter how illegal or despicable it might be, we can expect stories like what recently was posted on this blog.
A bit of history is instructive here. For all of the talk of 1776 and the Constitution, the intellectuals, politicians, and voters of the United States essentially abandoned the constitutional republic that had existed since 1787 and embraced what this country is today: a Progressive democracy. One cannot understand modern law (and especially federal criminal law) and the role of bureaucrats and elected officials without understanding the tenets of Progressivism.
The U.S. Constitution and its Declaration of Independence were written on the premise that individuals are flawed characters that need any number of boundaries in order to keep baser instincts in check. Call it Original Sin or just the way things are, but deep down, most of us realize that we are capable of doing a lot of evil if no one or no thing stops us. Furthermore, there seems to be no limit to the human capacity of excusing or justifying the wrongness of our deeds.
Many of our original institutions were built upon this notion. On the “private” side, we have markets in which consumers can put even the most powerful companies out of business (i.e. General Motors) by refusing to purchase their products. Because government institutions are not consumer-driven entities (voters are not the same as consumers), they have to face different constraints, since governments are given a monopoly on deadly force. Because government agents can do an immense amount of harm to others while acting under the “color of law,” it is imperative that those agents be given consistent boundaries in order to keep them from using their legal positions to deny rights to others.
Progressives, on the other hand, believed that people were advancing through the evolutionary process, and that formal education and the “professionalizing” of various occupations would help create individuals who not only would be able to identify what was the “public good,” but also would carry out actions that would promote public welfare. Not only did they embrace legal institutions that would empower people who worked within government to impose their will whenever they believed it necessary to do so, but they also dismantled many of the boundaries that the law had created to keep government in check because, after all, educated and professional people did not need such constraints.
Living in an age where many, if not most, occupations require a license or some sort of formal training in order for people to engage in providing such services, we forget that occupational licensing and the establishment of credentials a “proof” of expertise and, more important, professional competence, really was a product of the Progressive Era. For example, before law schools became the powerful and influential and prestigious entities that they are today, at one time many lawyers did not even go to law school. Instead, people who wished to practice law would work as apprentices under practicing lawyers to learn their occupation.
Such a state of affairs would seem foreign to us, given that in our political economy, one cannot even cut hair without approval from a state-run agency.The bureaucratic hoops that exist for nearly every occupation might be formidable, but to many of us, they also are the New Normal. In fact, many people could not imagine a political economy in which many people from whom they purchase goods and services were NOT state licensed or approved by an official agency.
There are some among us who are True Believers in this system, those who believe that state-empowered agents, when given proper training and guidance, generally will do the right thing. Furthermore, because individuals outside of the legal system lack the expertise and good sense to be able to understand the law and how to apply it, society then must depend upon the “professionals” who will be well-trained and will have the proper educational and occupational credentials.
In other words, the people in the system really don’t need constraints because their professionalism and their training will ensure that they already know beforehand where the edge of the cliff might be. Such a system of selection, I have seen it argued, ensures that most of the people who become prosecutors are competent (they passed law school and the BAR exam) and ethical (they took at least one ethics class in law school), so nothing else is needed.
Obviously, we are dealing with a huge clash in how people regard human nature. On one side, we have the “good people” (prosecutors) going after the “bad people” (anyone arrested and charged with a crime). Because the “bad people” are so bad, we must give extraordinary tools to those who are performing the public service. Yes, it is true that every once in a while, a public servant becomes overzealous in a good cause and either stretches the law or takes some liberty with the truth.
Like many others, I would like to believe that the rash of prosecutorial misconduct that infects our courts today is just the product of overzealous people who sometimes get carried away going after the bad guys. However, I would be believing a lie if I were to say that is what is happening.
No, what is happening is much darker. First, it is true that most people in the system are guilty, and I would not dispute that point. Second, the actual number of truly innocent people is relatively small compared to the truly guilty, and I have no doubt that the “I am a hammer and you are a nail” syndrome takes effect in prosecutorial circles as it would elsewhere in a bureaucratic system.
But the cynicism I have witnessed in cases of actual innocence, from Janet Reno’s false child molestation prosecutions of 30 years ago to Mike Nifong’s cynical pursuit of rape charges against three Duke lacrosse players, charges he knew were false, to what I witnessed in Tonya Craft’s trial in 2010, tells me that something much deeper is happening. Don’t forget that Reno was rewarded by being named U.S. Attorney General (from where she touched off the biggest U.S. Government domestic massacre since Wounded Knee in 1890). Furthermore, when Nifong was spouting off in his interviews and when he was declaring he had no doubt of the players’ guilt, prosecutors across the country lined up in support of him. The forsook him only after he was caught red-handed in a lie during a December 15, 2006, hearing.
The Duke case was one in which the falsity of the charges was transparent from the beginning. We were expected to believe that three young men could beat a woman for thirty minutes, rape her, ejaculate on her, force her to have oral sex, and then not leave on speck of DNA? And U.S. prosecutors went along with that nonsense? Are we dealing with people who are so stupid that they cannot even understand the basic laws of time and space?
For that matter, was Janet Reno so utterly dense that she actually could believe that an adult could stick knives and even swords into the rectums of little children and not leave even a solitary mark? That adults in day care centers could be molesting children literally all day and no one who came into the place actually witnessed these terrible acts. And no one was missing the proverbial child who had been microwaved to death?
That a person who could believe this nonsense would be named the Attorney General of the United States tells us more about the state of American politicians than anything else. (Hillary Clinton claimed that Reno was good on “children’s issues.” Reno was so good that she managed to massacre a number of youngsters just a couple months after taking office.)
Furthermore, if Michael Nifong was a “rogue prosecutor,” then why did so many prosecutors speak on his behalf in the early days of the case? As Jonathan Turley noted in a column in the Washington Post, why in the world is someone like Nancy Grace, a former prosecutor who now is a legal commentator, become respected for her views on the law? He writes:
Consider the career of Nancy Grace. Before becoming a CNN and Court TV anchor, she was a notorious prosecutor in Alabama. In a blistering 2005 federal appeals opinion, Judge William H. Pryor Jr., a conservative former Alabama attorney general, found that Grace had “played fast and loose” with core ethical rules in a 1990 triple-murder case. Like Nifong, Grace was accused of not disclosing critical evidence (the existence of other suspects) as well as knowingly permitting a detective to testify falsely under oath. The Georgia Supreme Court also reprimanded her for withholding evidence and for making improper statements in a 1997 arson and murder case. The court overturned the conviction in that case and found that Grace’s behavior “demonstrated her disregard of the notions of due process and fairness and was inexcusable.” She faced similar claims in other cases.
You might have expected Grace to suffer the same fate as Nifong. Instead, she has her own show on CNN, and the network celebrates her as “one of television’s most respected legal analysts.” On TV, she displays the same style she had in the courtroom. (In the Duke case, her presumed-guilty approach was evident early on, when she declared: “I’m so glad they didn’t miss a lacrosse game over a little thing like gang rape.”)
The Grace effect is not lost on aspiring young prosecutors who struggle to outdo one another as camera-ready, take-no-prisoners avengers of justice. Grace’s controversial career also shows how prosecutors can routinely push the envelope without fear of any professional consequences. Often this does not mean violating an ethics rule, but using legally valid charges toward unjust ends.
So, why do they do it? They do it because they can, and because no one tells them they can’t. Nancy Grace is exposed as a liar and a cheat, so she gets her own TV show and lots of wealth. If Grace had been honest, does anyone think she would be a celebrity?
Indeed, for most prosecutors, crime pays and it pays quite well. Robert Frost, in “Mending Wall,” writes of his neighbor who says, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Good fences also would make for better police and prosecutors. Unfortunately, they don’t exist and the walls that are there constantly are torn down by people who claim we don’t need them at all.