Saturday, January 09, 2010

Case Updates

A few updates in the civil suit.

First, and most significant, an out-of-court settlement was reached in the Pottawatamie case, a civil suit that resulted from massive prosecutorial misconduct, and about which I had blogged previously. As Radley Balko has argued, the Pottawattamie side of the case contended “that prosecutorial immunity gives government officials the right to coerce witnesses to lie, withhold evidence pointing to a suspect's innocence, and work with police to manufacture false evidence of guilt, then use that evidence to win false convictions that send two men to prison for 25 years.”

The two falsely imprisoned men received $12 million; the Iowa county didn’t admit wrongdoing, but the willingness to settle represented a reasonable reading of the Supreme Court tea leaves. Only Justices Alito and Roberts seemed openly sympathetic to the county’s side.

While the parties to the case could figure out which way the Court was likely to decide, Nifong attorney Jim Craven apparently thought that Pottawatamie would be his client’s ticket to freedom. Back to the drawing board.

The settlement is obviously a victory for the wrongly accused men, but probably a setback for justice, since the Supreme Court seemed inclined to place some minimal checks on prosecutorial misconduct. That said, as Volokh Conspiracy’s John Elwood pointed out, “While the settlement ends this case, this is not the last we’ve seen of this issue. Any other case which credibly presents the same issue will have an enhanced chance of being granted, because the Court has a demonstrated interest in the issue. The facts of Pottawattamie County were particularly sympathetic, which made it more cert-friendly than the run-of-the-mine case; but at this point, I think the Court is interested in the issue and won’t need outrageous facts to grant."

Who knows: perhaps the case in which the Court checks prosecutors will be the Duke civil suit. As egregious as the conduct of the Pottawattamie prosecutors was, even they didn’t personally direct the entire police investigation, as the disgraced ex-DA Nifong did.

Second, the Durham attorneys are justifying their fees by drawing “the Court’s attention” to two 4th Circuit cases in which suits against cities or city employees were dismissed. The attorneys’ filing didn’t bother to explain the relevance of either case to the Durham lawsuit, probably because the facts of both cases radically differ from that of the Duke case.

In Monroe v. City of Charlottesville, the city of Charlottesville requested (not required) DNA samples from young, black men in the area after a woman claimed she was raped by a young, black man. One of the subjects of the procedure, Larry Monroe (who voluntarily gave his DNA), sued. The district court dismissed the suit in large part because Monroe failed to state an actionable claim, and also because “Monroe had little interest in or knowledge and understanding of the case, and appeared to be merely lending his name to the suit.” Certainly even the Durham attorneys aren’t suggesting that the Duke plaintiffs have failed to state specific civil rights claims—or that Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty, and Dave Evans have “little interest in or knowledge and understanding of the case.”

In one respect, Monroe does have some relationship to the Duke case—but it helps the plaintiffs, not the city of Durham. Although most of his case was dismissed, including his claim that he was targeted because of his race, Monroe was “allowed to proceed on his individual claims of (1) an equal protection violation based on the City’s alleged failure to institute similar investigation methods when the assailant is described as white.”

It’s not too difficult to see the potential relevance of this finding to the Duke case. As of March 2006, Nifong’s only (slim) hope at a primary victory (and thereby keeping his job) was to maximize his performance among the black vote. Against a black candidate and a white challenger (Freda Black) who actually had ties to the local African-American community, this seemed like an impossible order—until the Duke case came along. Strong evidence exists that his (unethical) handling of the case—motivated, as the DHC inquiry found, by his political concerns—raised his support in the black community and paved the way to his narrow primary win, in both the primary and the general election.

Imagine if the races in the Duke case were reversed: would Nifong, the DA desperate for the black vote, have engaged in race-baiting public comments, withheld exculpatory DNA evidence, and ordered a rigged lineup to falsely bring charges against black defendants? It is inconceivable that he would have done so.

The facts of the second case cited by the Durham attorneys, Francis v. Giacomelli, are even further afield from the Duke case. Francis arose when the former Baltimore police commissioner, Kevin Clark, sued the city of Baltimore and former Baltimore mayor Martin O’Malley after O’Malley fired the commissioner. Both the district court and the 4th Circuit (correctly) held that O’Malley was entitled to qualified immunity.

Since the Durham attorneys don’t explain why they cited Francis, it’s difficult to guess why they thought the case was relevant, but presumably they believed that a finding of qualified immunity for O’Malley would somehow bolster their claim that various Durham police officials and ex-City Manager Patrick Baker deserve qualified immunity. Best of luck to them on that argument.

A reminder that I blog fairly regularly at Minding the Campus; and also at Cliopatria. Will be back at DIW when developments in the civil case warrant.