Last week featured the latest Craven filing from the Mike Nifong camp. Nifong attorney Jim Craven filed a four-page brief (which included a grand total of 14 lines in his own words) regarding the Pottawatomie case, which I have previously discussed.
Craven’s conclusion? "We suggest that if the Supreme Court rules in favor of the Iowa prosecutors/petitioners on the immunity case, such a ruling would likely apply to the defendant Michael B. Nifong in this case.” Craven’s argument in support of that conclusion? Nothing. Craven devoted not even one of his fourteen lines to offering an argument on behalf of his assertion. He also cited some amicus briefs that actually distinguished the sort of behavior exhibited by Nifong in the lacrosse case from that of the Iowa prosecutors.
To tease out Craven’s (unoffered) argument: if the Supreme Court sides with the Iowa prosecutors, then all prosecutors who decide to personally supervise the police investigation, from a point well before any decision to charge is ultimately made, should be shielded from civil suits regarding any of their misconduct—even as the police officers who they corruptly directed will not be shielded from civil suits.
The Court’s oral argument offered little to bolster Nifong’s Craven view. Only two justices, John Roberts and Samuel Alito, seemed indifferent to designing a solution that might hold the Iowa prosecutors accountable for their actions; the duo has a well-deserved reputation for taking the government’s side regarding virtually all criminal justice issues, so their pro-prosecutors position in the oral argument came as little surprise. As usual, Clarence Thomas didn’t ask any questions in the session; the other six justices appeared to have an open mind about the case.
Attorney Stephen Sanders , representing the two ethically challenged Iowa prosecutors, went out of his way to frame his claim in such a way that it would not apply to the behavior Mike Nifong exhibited in the lacrosse case. “If a prosecutor’s absolute immunity in judicial proceedings means anything,” declared Sanders, “it means that a prosecutor may not be sued because a trial has ended in a conviction. Yet that is exactly what happened in this case.” Of course, in the lacrosse case, Nifong never took his manufactured evidence to trial, so never had the opportunity to establish the immunity that Sanders feels his clients deserve.
The attorney couldn’t have been clearer on this point: “There is no disjunction between observing that a prosecutor, like a police officer, has only qualified immunity during the investigation [emphasis added] while, at the same time, insisting that that does not affect the fact that the prosecutor has absolute [immunity].” Nifong’s key misconduct—his improper public statements, his withholding of exculpatory evidence, his ordering the police to run a lineup that blatantly violated their own procedures, his decision to go ahead with the case though lacking in probable cause—all occurred “during the investigation,” or when Nifong, the elected DA, improperly assumed personal control of the police investigation.
When asked by Justice Ruth Ginsburg whether he was envisioning a process in which police officers who manufactured evidence would receive only qualified immunity while a prosecutor who engaged in comparable conduct but didn’t try the case would receive absolute immunity, Sanders demurred. The prosecutor’s role would be same as police officer who was subject to civil suit, he reasoned,"if the prosecutor in the second case that you hypothesize had nothing to do with the later prosecution”—as occurred with Nifong in the lacrosse case.
Ginsburg summarized the Iowa prosecutor’s position: “You can have a prosecutor, who wasn’t involved in the trial, [who] would have liability.” Sanders agreed.
So Craven, it appears, is counting on the Supreme Court not only deciding in favor of the Iowa prosecutors but issuing a ruling going beyond what the attorney for the prosecutors desired. That’s possible, but unlikely.
One point in the oral argument showed just how extraordinary Nifong’s usurpation of the police role in was. Justice Stephen Breyer seemed unsympathetic to the prosecutors, but he worried about the effects of a decision allowing civil suits to go forward, lest such a ruling make prosecutors gun-shy about moving in to check out-of-control police officers. “All things being equal,” Breyer maintained, “I think it’s probably a good thing to get prosecutors involved in the questioning process” early. “That has kind of a check on police.” Breyer continued: “The concern I’d have is that the—this will discourage the prosecutors from becoming involved in the witness—witness questioning process, at least not before the police are well on the way. And that is a very negative incentive, I would think.”
Breyer, obviously, has never met Mike Nifong.