Wednesday, April 18, 2007 | The behavior of Mike Nifong, the North Carolina prosecutor in the case of the three Duke University students, should have a chilling effect on all of us in San Diego. For a prosecutor who holds the public trust to do what Nifong did — i.e., hold multiple press conferences to make inflammatory comments about the guilt of three individuals in a rape case, with no evidence whatsoever — is unconscionable.
And the reason he did it? Presumably, he put politics ahead of his trusted position as a public prosecutor and as an officer of the court, because he was more interested in getting re-elected than in conducting himself appropriately. Instead of putting together a case, with all the evidence necessary to prove guilt, or that a crime was even committed, Nifong broke public trust and used the court of public opinion instead of a court of law, to impugn and essentially destroy the lives of three innocent people.
Why should this concern us in San Diego? Because we have our own rogue attorney with limited prosecutorial authority who is conducting himself in a similar and unchecked manner. City Attorney Mike Aguirre, since taking office almost two and a half years ago, has impugned the character of, and, accused an untold number of individuals of criminal behavior, yet, he has brought actual charges against only a few of the publicly accused. Instead, he uses the power of his office to indict people in the court of public opinion, presumably because it is a more efficient vehicle for him than an actual court of law, which would compel him to provide evidentiary information and actually prove that his spurious claims are true.
Here are two different standards of conduct to consider;
Ready — Aim — Fire;
The U.S. attorney in San Diego (as well as the district attorney) will file an indictment before speaking publicly about it. We can usually count on them putting together an impressive amount of evidence that is then explained to the public as to what the crime is and why charges have been brought forward. The case would then move through the system eventually providing everyone with their day in court, in front of a judge and jury (unless there is a plea beforehand), which is how the system works.
Ready — Fire — Aim;
Which seems to be the choice of the city attorney, makes claims of all sorts of alleged criminal behavior and even names names in many instances. However, there is never the guarantee that the publicly accused will have their day in court, since many charges are never filed for lack of any substantiation. And if there was indeed criminal behavior to pursue, it likely would not be Aguirre’s to pursue since he only has misdemeanor prosecution authority. In the eyes of some, this makes him no better than a playground bully who lacks the skill, courage and brains to engage in appropriate behavior because it is easier to scare or intimidate others.
This would almost be comical if it were not for the seriousness of elected officials, in positions of trust, making public accusations that can lead to lawsuits against the city that taxpayers will have to pay to defend.
It is serious business to accuse any individual of a crime as there is an enormous responsibility to get it right before taking an action that will potentially impact someone’s life forever. The system we have to determine guilt and innocence has rules, procedures, standards of ethical behavior and processes that have worked effectively for the last few hundred years. True, it needs adjustment and change from time to time to make it better, but, I just don’t think holding press conferences to make accusations of others before finding any evidence that would hold up in a court of law helps to protect anyone’s civil liberties, including yours.
If there is evidence that people have committed criminal offenses, let’s use the court system as it is intended to be used, for the right reasons, bringing facts and evidence to bear and where judges and juries are part of the process, which helps prevent travesties of justice (or Salem Witch hunts.) One elected city attorney turned legal shock jock, calling press conferences at will but technically following through on little, is very dangerous indeed!