[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i.a.cnn.net/cnn/2007/images/07/20/t1home.fitzgerald.ap.jpg caption="U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald"]
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Disgraced former Durham County, North Carolina District Attorney Mike Nifong was disbarred last year for, among other reasons, prejudicial pretrial public comments he made about three Duke University students he accused of rape.
This jumped to mind as I watched highly respected U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald make repeated comments about the evidence against Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich yesterday at Fitzgerald’s press conference.
“The conduct would make Lincoln roll over in his grave,” Fitzgerald said, in a comment that was widely quoted by news organizations today. And that was just the beginning. “Governor Blagojevich has taken us to a truly new low,” he said. The Governor embarked upon “a political corruption crime spree.” His conduct, prosecutor Fitzgerald said, was “appalling,” repeated three times, for emphasis.
If the allegations are proven, clearly so. But we are only at the indictment phase, and Governor Blagojevich is, at this time, a citizen of the United States, presumed innocent. And U.S. Attorney Fitzgerald has an obligation to seek justice, not to seek a conviction by any means necessary.
Illinois ethics rules, which apply to federal as well as state prosecutors, permit public disclosure of the facts of an investigation and the allegations in an indictment. But when a prosecutor publicly discloses that a defendant has been charged with a crime, state law requires a statement explaining that the charge is merely an accusation and that the defendant is presumed innocent unless proven guilty.
I must have missed that part of Fitzgerald’s presser.
Prohibited, however, are statements which could be reasonably interpreted as threatening the fairness of a proceeding. Specifically, prosecutors may not publicly comment upon “the character, credibility, reputation or criminal record of a party,” nor “any opinion as to the guilt or innocence of a defendant.”
Would Lincoln be rolling over merely from an accusation?
By the way, what terrible characterizations did Nifong make that led to the firestorm against him? Nifong said that he was "confident that a rape occurred," and he called the players "a bunch of hooligans" whose "daddies could buy them expensive lawyers."
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