- “We’ll never know what happened,” citing Donald Rumsfeld;
- “Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence,” citing Mike Nifong;
- The book functions as the trial that never occurred, except defense attorneys weren’t asked to speak;
- “As a student of human nature,” Cohan’s evaluation of the case should be deemed credible—even as he breezily confesses his lack of legal credentials;
- Mangum’s newest story (the broomstick assault) is credible.
Friday, April 18, 2014
Cohan: "Why? Why? Why?"
Author William D. Cohan continued his publicity tour, this time stepping slightly outside his ideological comfort zone to appear on Michael Smerconish’s radio show. (Excerpt here; full broadcast available at siriusxm.) Cohan expressed amazement that important parties to the case had declined to speak with “somebody like me.” Waxing almost philosophical, he wondered, “Why? Why? Why?”
Regarding many key figures—the defense attorneys, State Bar prosecutors, the senior prosecutors in the AG’s office, the prosecutor in the contempt trial, Judge Smith, and the Bar disciplinary tribunal—the answer to Cohan’s question is straightforward: because (as I noted in my Commentary review) he made no attempt to interview any of them.
On the Smerconish program, Cohan brushed over this inconvenient fact, and instead directed to his targets a series of easily answered questions. Why won’t Roy Cooper, he mused at 7.10, “make his investigative files open to the public?” (Hint: NCGS § 132-1.4.) “Why won’t these three boys [he’s referring to individuals in their late 20s or early 30s here] talk to me? Why? Why? Why? If there’s nothing to hide—if it were me, and this had happened to me, . . . and somebody like me was writing a book about it, I would immediately want to talk to that person despite what my attorneys were telling me, or despite what I might have signed in a settlement with Duke.” (Is Cohan so blasé in upholding legal obligations in his own life?)
So, to summarize: Cohan believes that when “somebody like” him comes a-calling, a state’s top law enforcement official should ignore state law to satisfy the author’s curiosity; and interview subjects should violate legal settlements that they freely signed to do his bidding. Meanwhile, though he’s described the purpose of his book as recreating the trial that never occurred, he apparently made no effort to interview any attorney who tangled with Mike Nifong in court on any matter related to the case.
Over the course of the interview, Cohan provided many of what have become his usual soundbites:
Cohan also added a new twist on an old favorite (at 6.17): “It’s not inconceivable that something happened that none of us would be proud of.” He still won’t say what happened, but his argument has now expanded—presented as a double negative, no less!: that people should stand for trial for a possible decades-long sentence because “it’s not inconceivable that something happened.” Why? Because (at 7.10) “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” Top-notch investigative journalism in action.
Unlike WUNC’s Frank Stasio, who asked Cohan several specific questions (if he didn’t do enough follow-ups), Smerconish steered clear of detailed questions. But the host did make clear his belief that a rough kind of justice was served in the case—Mangum’s in jail, albeit for murder; Nifong’s disbarred and bankrupt; and the falsely accused students have moved on with their lives and prospered. Each got what they deserved.
Such an interpretation enraged Cohan, who had to pause for a couple of seconds before even responding, as if he were preparing to speak to a wayward schoolchild. “I’m not sure,” he sputtered at 2.58, “that the players, the three guys, deserved $20 million each.” (There’s no reason—apart from Cohan’s uncorroborated reporting—to believe that the settlement total was $60 million; credible reporting from Bernie Reeves, which I have no reason to doubt, placed the actual total at around a third of Cohan’s claim.) Cohan conceded that the university had some legal liability, but added that Duke settled because they wanted the case to go away—without explaining why Duke aggressively litigated the unindicted players’ lawsuit, ensuring that the case didn’t quickly go away.
Repeating his normal disclaimer that he isn’t a lawyer and lacks legal training, Cohan nonetheless denied that “there was justice” in the case, since (at 0.46) “justice is something that we find out through a legal process.” Cohan seems to equate a “legal process” and taking a case “through a trial,” even if the prosecution lacks probable cause or the prosecutor flagrantly violates state law or state ethics guidelines. Nor, in Cohan’s world, can prosecutors independently discover (or even concede) evidence of innocence. “I don’t think,” the author asserted, that “innocent” is “a legal term.” This would be news to state Innocence Commissions.
Perhaps because Smerconish made absolutely clear his disdain for Nifong’s conduct, Cohan toned down his customarily strident defense of the disgraced ex-DA. He did describe Nifong as “a very respected prosecutor for 28 years” who was “railroaded” out of office, showing that the “justice system was rigged” in favor of the rich. But he countered with an off-message concession—“I can’t defend his decisions as a prosecutor”(!!)—even as he had done little else in the book and in his various publicity appearances. Cohan also stated that Nifong would admit that he made “mistakes,” though the author declined to identify to which “mistakes” he was referring.
Almost all of the callers to the program were not persuaded; one pointed out the absurdity of Cohan’s insinuation that just because DNA wasn’t used 100 years ago, it’s OK for prosecutors to ignore modern science.
Cohan’s class-based arguments—his suggestion that his outrage comes from a belief that the wealthy have “rigged” the legal system to ensure that they’re not held culpable for their crimes—also fell short. Smerconish not unreasonably countered, “I think to myself, 'Thank God [the defendants] had deep pockets,' because but for those deep pockets, they might have—who knows, they might have gone away in a case where I don’t think charges should ever have been brought to begin with.”
Smerconish could have been speaking of another of Nifong’s victims, someone who did not have the resources that the three falsely accused former Duke students did. Less than three weeks before Cohan’s book appeared, Darryl Howard’s story was brilliantly explicated by Radley Balko. And yet it has received not a single question from any journalist (or “Cycle”/”Morning Joe” co-host) who has interviewed Cohan.
This silence is particularly puzzling, for two reasons. First, Cohan has gone out of his way (even in the Smerconish interview) to describe Nifong as a distinguished prosecutor, someone widely respected in the Durham legal community before the lacrosse case. He also has portrayed Nifong as unusually solicitous of rights of defendants in cases that he tried, including by turning over all evidence from his files to defense attorneys. Yet as Balko’s article points out, it’s at the least plausible and at the most likely that Nifong withheld from Howard’s defense attorney a critical document, in which an informer attributed the crime to a gang, not to Howard.
Second, Cohan has aggressively—most notoriously in extraordinary comments to Diane Rehm (at 11.25)—portrayed Nifong as ethically pristine in his handling of the DNA evidence in the lacrosse case. The implied argument: Nifong knows his way around DNA, and defense claims to the contrary were playing fast and loose with the truth.
Yet as the filing in the Howard case by Jim Cooney and Barry Scheck made clear, Nifong’s manipulation of DNA evidence—albeit in a different way than the lacrosse case—was critical to Howard’s conviction. The case was initially investigated as a double murder and possible sexual assault. But then DNA in the victims came back without a match to Howard. The filing describes what Nifong did to avoid the DNA test sinking his case: “Nifong insinuated to the jury that a child who was murdered and had sperm in her anus at the time of her death had engaged in consensual anal sex at the age of thirteen prior to her murder.” In other words, in order to win, the disgraced ex-DA besmirched the legacy of a 13-year-old murder victim.
The Innocence Project filing made clear that Nifong’s conduct in the Howard case “was improper.” He “solicited testimony that he knew or should have known was false” in a critical examination of the lead detective on the case which dismissed the record of the case ever being investigated as a sexual assault. By posing “misleading questions,” Nifong for all practical purposes “affirmatively solicited testimony that he knew or should have known was false,” which amounted to his having “presented false testimony.”
This is the man William Cohan has described as “quite credible” and “honorable.” By the way, even though the Innocence Project took on Howard’s case in 2006, and even as the author covered other topics from the 1990s in his hours of interviews with Nifong, there’s no indication that Cohan asked his book’s central protagonist even a single question about his handling of the Howard case.
Hat tip: M.