The News & Observer, with a big boost from its recent four-part series on “Agents’ Secrets,” in which it actually shares blame with someone other than Mike Nifong for the abysmal state of the North Carolina justice system, is now the front-runner for my annual “Jedi Mind-trick Award”… barely squeaking ahead of NBC-17 News. The series by staff writers Mandy Locke and Joseph Neff predictably places blame for all the state’s criminal justice woes on a few bad apples in the State Bureau of Investigation and the forensic lab that it runs. The four-part series recounts numerous horrific tales of injustice and wrongful incarcerations that have occurred in the state in the not so distant past, but what is truly remarkable is that the writers did it while mentioning the name of a prosecutor (linked to a case) only once! And even when mentioned, it was not in a derogatory context. Ms. Locke and Mr. Neff surely deserve accolades for adhering to the PAPEN (Protect All Prosecutors Except Nifong) Policy when presented with such a challenging topic. And they did well to shift all responsibility from North Carolina State prosecutors to SBI agents and SBI lab personnel.
When it comes down to it, a few individuals in the SBI and its lab were sacrificed as scapegoats to take the downfall and accept blame for all of the malicious and baseless prosecutions and lengthy incarcerations of the innocents that have occurred. The prosecutors, the newspaper would like you to believe, were nothing much more than bystanders and onlookers when the prosecutorial treads of injustice squashed designated individuals (mostly the disenfranchised, poor, and people of color) along with their civil and constitutional rights. From reading the four-part series, one would swear that the investigative agents and lab technicians were single-handedly in charge of determining the fate of the state’s defendants.
The Gregory Taylor case was, of course, mentioned. Revelations from his hearing before a three judge bench in February 2010 was responsible for media focus being directed at the SBI and its forensic practices. But Prosecutor Tom Ford’s name was never mentioned in the series, and his actions in that case were some of the most despicable in the annals of North Carolina juris prudence. Ford was responsible for the vindictive and malicious incarceration of Mr. Taylor because he (Taylor) would not bow to Ford’s urgings for him to implicate an innocent African American man in a murder. Without any credible evidence, Mr. Taylor was sentenced to life, and served 17 years before he was freed by a three judge panel. Ford was even a pivotal figure in attempts to persuade the recently seated panel to deny Taylor’s bid for freedom by arguing against Taylor’s release.
In the Taylor case, The News & Observer left the SBI lab workers and its lab protocol, which in general heavily trended in favor of the prosecution, holding the bag when it came to the fact that the prosecution identified blood on the bumper of Taylor’s car… crucial in winning a conviction against an innocent man. It was the only so-called “evidence” used by Ford against Taylor besides the trumped up testimony of two so-called “witnesses” seeking shorter sentences in exchange for their statements. Prosecutor Tom Ford is neither dumb nor naïve… to the contrary, he is smart, cunning, and calculating. Make no mistake about it, Ford knew in 1991, as well as in February of 2010, exactly what the SBI lab’s complete results were with respect to the red substance on the bumper of Greg Taylor’s vehicle. He was aware that the confirmatory tests did not support the specimen being human blood.
But with the murder of African American prostitute Jacquetta Thomas, Ford was not interested in solving a crime… because he cared not about the victim, his priority was in closing the case. Despite Tom Ford knowing that Taylor was innocent, Taylor’s refusal to falsely implicate Johnny Beck, a black “suspect,” was all it took for Ford to seek a life sentence conviction. Prosecutor Ford could care less whether results forthcoming from the lab were bogus or legit, as long as they supported his case against Taylor.
In another case cited by the newspaper, unnamed prosecutors referred to only as “Davie County prosecutors” supposedly relied on lab work and forensic testimony in prosecuting a Kernersville dentist for the murder of his wife. It seems that the SBI agent involved in the case did not make the appropriate notes and documentation, predated a document, and made false statements about evidence. According to the newspaper, the misdeeds by the agents and bloodstain pattern expert were done to fit the investigator’s theory. The reader is to believe that the unidentified prosecutors were totally out of the loop? Such a scenario is not to be believed as it is the prosecutors who drive the prosecution of defendants, not the other way around. The investigators and agents try to conjure up results backing up the prosecutor’s story about how the crime(s) unfolded and the defendant’s role.
Perhaps the most blatant example of the PAPEN Policy in The News & Observer series is a redacted quote by Barry Scheck who is questioning Alan Gell investigator Dwight Ransome: “When you were talking with [the district attorney], didn’t you…” Mr. Scheck probably said, “When you were talking with David Hoke, didn’t you…” So in order to protect the identity of the Gell prosecutor (Hoke) who put an innocent man (Gell) on death row despite exculpatory evidence that proved Gell could not possibly have committed a murder, the newspaper substituted a generic [the district attorney].
There are many more examples which I could point out, but doing so would only be redundant. The fact is that whether it’s DNA, bloodstain patterns, confirmatory testing for human blood, missing notations and documentation, false testimony, purposely not conducting tests on evidence, etc., the investigators and lab analysts who are acting unethically and inappropriately are doing so at the behest of the prosecutors to help win a conviction. By and large, prosecutors are anything but “ministers of justice” whom they are portrayed to be… prosecuting a case but seeking the truth and assuring that the defendant receives justice. In North Carolina with its system of “selective justice based on Class and Color,” prosecutors have absolutely no qualms about putting away individuals in society who are disenfranchised, poor, and people of color. Likewise, as exemplified by the murder of Jacquetta Thomas, prosecutors lack the resolve to solve to crimes against the disenfranchised, poor, and people of color. They just want to close their case by sticking any body fitting the desirable profile (disenfranchise, poor, and of color) behind bars.
There once was a district attorney who did not fit the mold of the typical North Carolina prosecutor. Nearly a quarter of a decade before it became mandated, he had an open file policy wherein he shared all of his evidence with defense attorneys. He was a district attorney of the highest integrity, who believed in the principle of “equal justice for all.” He had the same respect for the law, sense of fair play, and obligation to duty as famed lawmen Wyatt Earp and Elliot Ness. And he had the independence and courage of Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Beckett to forge ahead and do what was right… and not do what was expedient or expected. As a result, Mike Nifong, former Durham district attorney was persecuted by the state and crucified in the media. The best district attorney the state of North Carolina will probably ever see was figuratively speaking thrown under the bus because he would not adhere to the Carpetbagger agenda in the Duke Lacrosse case. Unfortunately, the crimes by the state against Mr. Nifong are an abomination that has placed a scar on the justice system from which the state will never recover.
Although prompted by testimony at Greg Taylor’s hearing just months ago, the problems with the state’s criminal justice system have festered for many decades. What I find thoroughly disingenuous is the reaction to The News & Observer four-part series, with politicians and prosecutors feigning shock and indignation at problems which they have known to exist and have tolerated. Durham Representative Mickey Michaux, according to the newspaper, “was disturbed to read about false reports filed by SBI agents and the innocent people harmed, and said that agents who violate law and policy need to be punished.” But Michaux knows that the rights and liberty of innocent people (especially the poor and of color) are violated routinely by police and prosecutors. What has Representative Michaux done about it? Nothing, at least that I am aware of. And punishing agents who violate law and policy seems to be misplaced when they do so in response to the persuasion and pressure applied by prosecutors. Punishing wayward prosecutors, who are the driving force behind many innocents being locked away and mistreated, is not an unreasonable step. In my mind, it is also unlikely to be undertaken.
After reading the newspaper series, North Carolina Prosecutor Ann Kirby was quoted as saying: “It’s an absolute betrayal to us as prosecutors and to the agents who are doing their job fairly. To find out that people we relied on so heavily in so many cases were slanting results – by their own accord or by the instruction of supervisors – is the ultimate betrayal. We are not playing a game here. These are people’s lives.” To me, the betrayal seems to be on the other foot. The prosecutors entice, cajole, plead, demand, threaten and do whatever is necessary to extract results, regardless of how bogus, from willing or vulnerable agents and lab technicians in order to prevail in court. Then, when the unsavory practices for which these prosecutors are responsible are exposed by the media spotlight, they attack the agents and lab techs who did their bidding. Now that’s what I call the ultimate betrayal.