Local Politics

Law to Remove Overzealous Prosecutors Proposed

Posted April 11, 2007 4:35 p.m. EDT
Updated April 11, 2007 4:52 p.m. EDT

— In dismissing all charges in the Duke lacrosse sexual assault case, Attorney General Roy Cooper said North Carolina needs a law that would allow prosecutors who have overstepped their authority to be removed.

Cooper said he would ask state lawmakers to consider a proposal to allow the Supreme Court to remove a district attorney who have overstepped his or her authority in prosecuting a case.

"This would give the courts a new tool to deal with a prosecutor who needs to step away from a case where justice demands," he said. "We have good district attorneys in North Carolina who are both tough and fair. We need these forceful, independent prosecutors to put criminals away and protect the public. But we also need checks and balances to protect the innocent."

Three Duke University lacrosse players -- Collin Finnerty, Reade Seligmann and David Evans -- were accused of attacking a Crystal Mangum, who was performing as a stripper at a lacrosse team party in March 2006.

Mangum's account of the incident varied wildly, and DNA and other evidence didn't back up her story, Cooper said. But Durham County District Attorney pressed forward with the case, vowing early on that Durham wouldn't become nationally known as the place where lacrosse players could gang-rape a woman.

"This case shows the enormous consequences of overreaching by a prosecutor," Cooper said. "Any state, even the federal government, can have a rogue prosecutor who goes out on his own and does things."

The North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys, the organization for the state's 42 elected district attorneys, issued a statement after Cooper's announcement that addressed the pressure prosecutors face in high-profile cases.

"This creates an environment in which there is an incredible amount of pressure for the public, press and decision makers to rush to judgment. The responsibility and duty of a prosecutor is to deliberately assess the case presented, evaluate the evidence and witnesses and then make a determination as to how to proceed in the case so as to attempt to obtain justice for the public, alleged victims and the defendant," the statement said. "The prosecutors of this state grapple with thousands of decisions involving these issues on a daily basis."

Nifong is facing ethics complaints from the North Carolina State Bar, alleging that he made inflammatory statements in the media early in the investigation and withheld evidence from defense attorneys.

"I'm concerned that statements were made publicly about things that turned out not to be true," Cooper said, declining to comment further on the case against Nifong.