More malpractice in Durham DA office?

The botched investigation and wrongful indictment of Duke University lacrosse players wasn't the only severe problem in the Durham district attorney's office. As a unanimous panel of the N.C. Court of Appeals noted Tuesday, the prosecution of Frankie Delano Washington was flawed in two ways:

It violated Mr. Washington's right to a speedy trial because prosecutors took four years and nine months before trying him for kidnap, burglary, robbery and attempted sexual assault. He was sentenced to more than 60 years in jail.

Prosecutors may have had the wrong man. The process they used to identify Mr. Washington was sloppy. He did not match the victims' description of the person who broke into a Durham home in 2002. And worse yet, investigators failed to consider that another man might be the right suspect. He was tried and convicted for similar crimes, using a similar weapon and breaking into nearby homes around the same time.This case is astonishing despite the fact that the Durham district attorney's office already had been shown to be incompetent, motivated by political concerns and fully capable of extraordinary error.

That office wrongly charged three Duke lacrosse players with sexual assault at a team party in 2006. N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper later determined that the charges were false and that the players were innocent. Former Durham district attorney Mike Nifong has been disbarred and sued for his actions in pursuing the false charges. Given the bizarre way prosecutors pursued that case, the revelations in this opinion are hardly surprising.

They're appalling, too. As Judge Douglas McCullough noted, the state ignored requests by the defendant's lawyers to have the State Bureau of Investigation test evidence from a suspect charged in similar crimes before and after the May 2002 incident to determine if there was a fingerprint or DNA match with the other suspect. Incredibly, a lower court denied that request after a forensic scientist testified that it's SBI policy not to make fingerprint comparisons in cases where a suspect has already been identified – unless the state specifically asks for it.

That policy is nuts. It only serves to confirm the widespread suspicion that in certain judicial districts, prosecutors are less interested in the truth than in winning a conviction. The court noted, “We conclude that the state's failure to request that such comparisons be made is evidence of the state's repeated neglect of this case over the course of the prosecution.”

The court said the prosecution's failure to try Mr. Washington for nearly five years deprived him of his right to a speedy trial, guaranteed under both the federal and the state constitutions, and merited a reversal of his conviction. This decision – from three conservative appellate judges not known for coddling criminals – is a chilling reminder that prosecutors must not only make sure they nab the right suspect, but also must follow the law of the land.