Sadly, this is very atypical. While men and women are wrongfully accused of crimes every day, few end up with even the modestly "happy" ending the Duke players received. Most cases at least go to trial, often times they are convicted, and even once they are exonerated, only in the rarest of cases is the prosecutor even admonished, let alone disciplined, for any ethical violations they may have committed in the course of pursuing the all-important conviction. By and large, the conduct that provoked the calls for Mike Nifong's head is conduct that we are all too willing to condone. In other words, for all the gross injustices Nifong perpetuated in his prosecution of the Duke case, his real mistake, as CUNY Law Professor Victor Goode argues, was "treating three middle class white defendants as if they were poor and Black."
Richard Moran, a Sociology Professor at Mt. Holyoke College, found that two-thirds of wrongful death penalty convictions are the result, not of "innocent" mistakes or errors, of "intentional, willful, malicious prosecutions by criminal justice personnel." Moran continues:
Yet too often this behavior is not singled out and identified for what it is. When a prosecutor puts a witness on the stand whom he knows to be lying, or fails to turn over evidence favorable to the defense, or when a police officer manufactures or destroys evidence to further the likelihood of a conviction, then it is deceptive to term these conscious violations of the law — all of which I found in my research — as merely mistakes or errors.
Strangely, our misunderstanding of the real cause underlying most wrongful convictions is compounded by the very people who work to uncover them. Although the term “wrongfully convicted” is technically correct, it also has the potential to be misleading. It leads to the false impression that most inmates ended up on death row because of good-faith mistakes or errors committed by an imperfect criminal justice system — not by malicious or unlawful behavior.
For this reason, we need to re-frame the argument and shift our language. If a death sentence is overturned because of malicious behavior, we should call it for what it is: an unlawful conviction, not a wrongful one.
Alexandra Lahav comments:
Moran suggests that we change our rhetoric (calling these “unlawful” instead of “wrongful convictions”) and establish more specific standards for overturning convictions. These suggestions are too weak. The real problem, as he points out, is “the hearts and souls of those whose job it is to uphold the law.” I am not sure whether law or ethics rules can change hearts and minds, but setting that philosophical debate aside the law surely can put fear into the hearts and minds of prosecutors by actually punishing them for misconduct. All prosecutors who engage in such conduct should be fired and disbarred.
For a long time now, my impression of the mentality many prosecutors seem to hold is that their job is to pursue convictions, not justice. There are a variety of reasons this might have developed, from a natural outgrowth of having an adversarial system to a political desire to seem "tough on crime." Nonetheless, too often the lust to put someone, anyone, behind bars leads to illegal activity that needs to be punished. The integrity of our entire criminal justice system is jeopardizes when its agents can freely get away with illegal and unethical conduct that comprise everyone's right to a fair trial. If we are to do justice to what happened to the Duke players, we need to state a firm commitment to never tolerating this sort of behavior--even where the defendants don't have the resources to make it onto our TV screens.