Two of Peterson’s actions in this case raise serious concerns about Nifong’s accepting her as co-chair of his citizens’ committee. On April 11, the day after defense attorneys revealed that the DNA tests that Nifong had promised would “immediately rule out any innocent persons" matched none of the lacrosse players, Peterson spoke out at a forum held on the NCCU campus. She offered a novel rationalization for the DNA results: Duke University hospital had “tampered with” the sample.
Peterson, of course, is entitled to any opinion she wants, no matter how bizarre. But law enforcement officials usually shy away from people who peddle wild conspiracy theories that undermine public confidence in the judicial system. It’s even rarer to see a district attorney express joy at such a figure co-chairing his citizens’ committee. Think back to the assertions of former White House press secretary Pierre Salinger after the TWA Flight 800 crash a decade ago. Can anyone imagine, in the following year’s New York City elections, Manhattan D.A. Robert Morganthau or mayoral candidate and former U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani terming themselves “very pleased” or saying it “made me feel good” to have a conspiracy theorist like Salinger running their campaign’s citizens’ committee?
Nifong’s acceptance of a prominent role for Peterson in his campaign seems to conflict with the state bar ethics committee’s assigning district attorneys “the responsibility of a minister of justice and not simply that of an advocate; the prosecutor's duty is to seek justice, not merely to convict.” Obviously, elected district attorneys always face tensions between their job’s political and legal requirements. But affiliating with a figure who publicly suggested a conspiracy by medical officials to alter evidence in a case he’s handling suggests that Nifong has abandoned all pretense of serving as “minister of justice.”
Peterson’s other signficant case-related event came on May 1, when she was one of two people to flank Malik Zulu Shabazz during his public appearance in Durham. The head of the New Black Panther Party demanded the immediate imprisonment of the accused lacrosse players. To return to the state bar’s ethics requirements, the guidelines say that the minister of justice “responsibility carries with it specific obligations to see that the defendant is accorded procedural justice.” It’s hard to see how any prosecutor who took that requirement seriously could welcome a co-chair of his citizens’ committee who gave her public backing to a demand for imprisonment even before a trial.
As with her speculation about DNA, Peterson has the right to associate with anyone she wants, no matter how reprehensible his views. But how could a “minister of justice” say it “made me feel good” to have a citizens’ committee co-chair that he knew also had publicly endorsed the head of an organization that both the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center deem a hate group?
Nifong’s acceptance of Peterson as his citizens’ committee co-chair continues his pattern of inexplicable behavior toward the New Black Panthers. Two issues particularly stand out.
1. In his court hearing in May, Reade Seligmann received a death threat from a member of the New Black Panthers party, who sat directly behind him in the courtroom. What did Durham County’s “minister of justice” do? Nothing. (One observer even said he smiled.) To my knowledge, Nifong has never publicly condemned the death threat, much less promised to investigate it.
2. At a time when he was regularly refusing to speak with defense attorneys, Nifong accepted a call from Shabazz. Though he claimed to have used the occasion merely to urge Shabazz to “consider not coming,” the New Black Panther head asserted that two discussed the case at some length. It seems strange that Nifong would talk to Shabazz but refuse to meet before the indictment with Seligmann’s attorney, Kirk Osborn, to discuss what Osborn maintained was evidence to prove his client’s innocence. After all, Nifong had no obligation to speak to Shabazz, while the state bar’s ethics code mandated that he “not intentionally avoid pursuit of evidence merely because he or she believes it will damage the prosecutor's case or aid the accused.”
Nifong, of course, cannot control what Victoria Peterson says or does. But he can control whether he publicly welcomes the backing of a figure with such a record. Since he instead expressed joy at Peterson’s involvement in his campaign, it’s time for editorialists in North Carolina to start asking the district attorney some hard questions.
- Will Nifong repudiate the DNA theories of his citizens’ committee co-chair?
- Will Nifong explain how he could be “very pleased” to have a citizens’ committee co-chair who appeared on the platform when a hate group visited Durham?
- Will Nifong, at long last, start serving as a “minister of justice” and publicly condemn a death threat that occurred as he stood not 20 feet away in the courtroom?