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Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Perils of a Rush to Judgement

Dear Editor:

Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong's current dilemma is a reminder to all of us that public pressure to reach a speedy conviction can push a prosecutor to jump to a conclusion of guilt without checking first on the reliability of his witnesses.

At Duke University, my younger son's Alma Mater, it has led to complete disruption in the lives of the three lacrosse team members who were accused of rape despite their insistence on their innocence. Charges against the team members still exist despite objections from many legal professionals who believe the many differing accounts given by the victim — and the DNA evidence which excluded the members of the Duke lacrosse team and showed DNA from outsiders on the victim's clothing — has undermined the entire case.

How hard it is for a prosecutor to retreat from the many claims of guilt he hastily leveled at these tormented students and bring about a just closure for them. Demands are now being made for Nifong's resignation.

This is all too similar to what happened to Efren Paredes, Jr., a Lakeshore High School 15-year-old Latino honor student who was charged for the March 8, 1989 robbery of Vineland Foods and murder of Rick Tetzlaff. Efren was arrested, tried and convicted within a three month period amid intense television, print, and radio media coverage.

The crime understandably alarmed and enraged those in the community, and when the prosecutor of Efren's case was offered what seemed a quick and easy solution to the crime, he jumped at it after offering immunity to a drug dealer and police informant, Steve Miller, who was never prosecuted for his admitted role in the crime's conspiracy.

According to FBI agent Robert Allen Jones, who investigated Miller in a 2000 federal drug case, Miller admitted to dealing drugs with a Chicago gang leader beginning in 1987, two years previous to the Vineland robbery and Tetzlaff murder. Miller and his father were subsequently convicted for the drug-related charges and sentenced to long prison terms.

Readers are encouraged to read an alarming research paper on wrongful convictions titled, "Convicting the Innocent: Aberration or Systemic Problem," by Rodney Uphoff, Professor of Law, University of Missouri-Columbia School of Law, available at Another tragic case of injustice can be read in John Grisham's latest best-selling book, "The Innocent Man."

The Duke University athletes may be completely exonerated, and district attorney Nifong may face charges of professional misconduct and criminal charges for his illegal actions in the case, but Efren remains in prison sentenced to life without parole.

No one can afford to allow a system that wrongly condemns people to life imprisonment or the death penalty to function recklessly and with willful disregard for the truth. Our community is responsible for Efren's nearly 18 years of wrongful incarceration. It is long overdue for the silence to be broken and undo the injustice he has suffered.

To learn more about this injustice you are encouraged to visit and To sign an on-line petition calling for justice in Efren's case please visit

Joyce Gouwens

This above letter to the editor appeared in The Herald-Palladium on Thursday, January 11, 2006. Below is a brief history of what lead to the wrongful accusations lodged against the Duke University lacrosse players —The Injustice Must End (TIME)

Defense attorneys called Friday, December 29, 2006 for all charges to be dismissed against three Duke University lacrosse players after prosecutors dropped rape charges against them.

Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong said he didn't have enough evidence to proceed with a rape case but said he plans to take the players to trial on kidnapping and sexual offense charges.

Reade Seligmann, 20, Collin Finnerty, 20, and David Evans, 23, were indicted last spring after a North Carolina Central University student told police she was beaten and raped by three lacrosse players while performing as a stripper at a March 13 team party.

The players have denied any wrongdoing in the case, which has split the Durham community in recent months.

The dismissal follows a Thursday, December 28, 2006 meeting between Nifong's investigator and the woman. She told the investigator that she couldn't testify "with certainty" that she was raped, according to the dismissal motions.

"Since there is no scientific or other evidence independent of the victim's testimony that would corroborate specifically (a rape charge), the state is unable to meet its burden of proof with respect to this offense," the motions said.

In recent weeks defense attorneys disclosed that a report issued in the case initially didn't disclose that the woman had DNA on her from several men, none of which was a member of the lacrosse team.

Nifong has never talked to the woman about the details of the incident, although investigators from his office and the Durham Police Department have interviewed her repeatedly over the past nine months.

In addition to questioning the woman's varying statements, defense attorneys have repeatedly hammered other elements of the prosecution's case, including the DNA report and the photo line-up the woman used to identify the three players.