Saturday, February 24, 2007

"Waltz" Prosecutor DiScenza Defends Press, Grand Jurors, and Feds

Posted By on Sat, Feb 24, 2007 at 4:00 AM

Tim DiScenza, the federal government's trial attorney in the Tennessee Waltz cases in Memphis, stuck up for the fairness of the press and prosecutors Friday in response to a scathing critique by an author who's writing a book about the Duke lacrosse scandal.

While the comments of DiScenza and state prosecutor Amy Weirich were general in nature, they contrasted starkly with the views of guest speaker Stuart Taylor Jr., the headliner at the Rhodes Institute on the Profession of Law. About 100 people, most of them lawyers fulfilling a continuing education requirement, attended the event.

Taylor is legal affairs columnist for the National Journal and a contributing editor for Newsweek. His topic was "The Duke Lacrosse Case and What It Says About Our Criminal Justice Process, Academics, and News Media."

What it says, he suggested, is mostly bad: Durham N.C. prosecutor Mike Nifong made an "outrageous rush to judgment," most of the media botched the story because of their political correctness and general shadiness, and Duke professors and administrators were spineless and all too eager to join Nifong’s side.

The point of this column is not to comment on the Duke lacrosse scandal. All that most of us in Memphis know is what we read in the papers and see on television. What was interesting to Memphians was the role reversal at Rhodes, with Taylor, a New York Times reporter from 1980-1988, bashing the Times and the press in general and DiScenza, a career prosecutor, saying, basically, that it isn’t that simple.

"Nobody has been more attacked by people who are politically correct and race-obsessed than I have," said DiScenza. All of the Memphis and Shelby County politicians indicted so far in Tennessee Waltz and Main Street Sweeper are black Democrats.

DiScenza said that based on what he has heard, Nifong "violated every prohibition we have about disclosure of evidence" and would probably have been fired by now if he were a federal prosecutor. But he said the rules for state prosecutors in North Carolina may be different than the federal rules. And he praised the role of journalists and noted that the print news business has aggressively been policing its own on such charges as plagiarism.

He and Weirich also took issue with Taylor's claim that prosecutors are political creatures and blind to the other side and that grand jurors are mere rubberstamps for prosecutors.

"Just wanting to win a case is not the prevailing view in this office," said Weirich, who has been with the DA's office since 1991. She said the office has a responsibility to see that cases are "tried cleanly or disposed of fairly."

DiScenza said that when a case goes to a federal grand jury – one of which was recently led by crusty former Commercial Appeal editor Angus McEachran, a demonstrably independent-minded sort – the prosecutor must have personal certainty of the defendant’s guilt and "believe that a conviction is what justice demands."

The Rhodes panel would have been even more pointed had the focus been on Memphis instead of an alleged rape case 1000 miles away in North Carolina. DiScenza’s higher-up is U.S. Attorney David Kustoff, a former Republican Party activist, and Weirich's is District Attorney General Bill Gibbons, an elected official who formerly served on the Memphis City Council and Shelby County Commission and ran for mayor of Memphis and has been publicly accused of ducking some cases. Unfortunately, neither attended, nor were there any practicing journalists on the panel (other than Taylor) to defend the Fourth Estate.

For someone supposedly outraged by outrageous conduct, Taylor said a few outrageous things himself. He said that a DNA evidence kit "is so sensitive it will pick up my DNA from 20 yards away" yet it did not find anything from the accused Duke lacrosse players. And he said the lacrosse players, who were at an off-campus party with a stripper, were "bonding" and "they maybe had a beer." The lacrosse scandal, he said, is "the most egregious case of prosecutorial misconduct to unfold in real time in the history of the United States."

He later clarified that he was exaggerating about the DNA kit.

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