23 Jun 2007

Two Meritless Prosecutions

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Dorothy Rabinowitz, in the Wall Street Journal, compares Duke student prosecutor Nifong with Scooter Libby prosecutor Fitzgerald in A Tale of Two Prosecutors.

It was a noteworthy week on the justice front. Even as Mr. Nifong was facing ethics hearings in North Carolina, Scooter Libby’s attorneys came before trial Judge Reggie Walton, in Washington, to plead for a delay in the beginning of the 30-month sentence the judge had handed down. Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald’s project — the construction of a major case of obstruction of justice out of a perjury rap against Mr. Libby — had come to a satisfactory conclusion.

For Mr. Fitzgerald, whose prosecutorial zeal and moral certitude are in no small way reminiscent of Mr. Nifong’s, the victory was complete with those two final judgments: the severe sentence for Mr. Libby, and the judge’s refusal, last week, to allow its postponement pending appeal. The prosecutor’s argument for a heavy sentence emphasized Mr. Libby’s alleged serious obstruction of justice — a complicated effort, considering that there was no underlying crime, or evidence thereof, and that this case, which had begun in alleged pursuit of the leak of a covert agent’s identity was, as the prosecutor himself would finally contend, not about that leak at all.

Just what serious obstruction of justice Mr. Libby could have been guilty of, then, was, at the least, a heady question, though not one, clearly, that raised any doubts in the judge. Neither did Mr. Fitzgerald’s charge — also in pursuit of a heavy sentence — that the defendant had caused, by his obstruction, no end of trouble and expense in government effort.

The obligation to truth, the prosecutor argued, was of the highest importance, and one in which Mr. Libby had failed by perjuring himself. It would be hard to dispute the first contention. It is no less hard to avoid the memory of Mr. Fitzgerald’s own dubious relation to truth and honesty — as, for example, in his failure to disclose that he had known all along the identity of the person who had leaked the Valerie Plame story. That person, he knew, was Richard Armitage, deputy to Colin Powell. Not only had he concealed this knowledge — in what was, supposedly all that time, a quest to discover the criminals responsible for the leak of a covert agent’s name — he had instructed both Mr. Armitage and his superior, Colin Powell, in whom Mr. Armitage had confided, not to reveal the truth.

Special prosecutor Fitzgerald did, of course, have a duty to keep his investigation secret during grand jury proceedings, according to the rules. He did not have the power to order witnesses at those proceedings not to disclose their testimony or tell what they knew. Instead, Mr. Fitzgerald requested Messrs. Armitage and Powell to keep quiet about the leaker’s identity — a request they understandably treated as an order. Why the prosecutor sought this secrecy can be no mystery — it was the way to keep the grand jury proceedings going, on a fishing expedition, that could yield witnesses who stumbled, or were entrapped, into “obstruction” or “lying” violations. It was its own testament to the nature of this prosecution — and the prosecutor. …

The prospects for Mr. Libby’s success in an appeal hinge on three points, two concerning the court’s refusal to allow the defense to present certain witnesses. The other potentially powerful issue relates to Mr. Fitzgerald. The Special Prosecutor was given, on his appointment (by his long-time friend, acting Attorney General James Comey) a remarkable freedom from accountability to any higher authority or Justice Department standards. This unique freedom was made explicit in his appointment letter. Such unparalleled lack of control, the appeal will argue, is a violation of the principle of checks and balances.

However it comes out, both the case mounted against Mr. Libby, and the sentence delivered, have plenty of parallels. It is familiar stuff — the fruits of official power run amok in the name of principle and virtue — and it’s an ugly harvest. Mr. Libby is another in the long line of Americans fated to face show trials and absurdly long sentences — the sort invariably required for meritless prosecutions.

There was at least one bright spot in the events of the last week, specifically, Mr. Nifong’s removal from office — a case, at long last, of a prosecutor called to account. It will be some while we can guess, before any such wheels of justice grind their way to the special prosecutors.

How can a prosecutor be permitted to convict a defendant of obstruction of justice without first proving any crime had ever been committed? How can a defendant be possibly be convicted of perjury for allegedly misleading the prosecutor about the identity of Robert Novak’s informant which the prosecutor already knew and did not need to inquire about?

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