Fiat justitia ruat caelum: An Open Letter to North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper


Mr. Cooper, I must say that was a most interesting photo-op you had at the former lacrosse house in Durham recently. No doubt, your exercise of measuring something with a tape measure with special prosecutors James Coman and Mary Winstead raised a number of eyebrows, as did your statement that the accuser in the Duke case, Crystal Gail Mangum, was "fully cooperating" with your office.

Whatever the level of cooperation Mangum might have given you, she is not cooperating in the way she should be doing: by telling you the truth. However, given that a large number of people in this case — all on the prosecution side, mind you — have not been telling the truth, why should we expect anything more from Crystal, whose "fantastic lies" started this whole affair?

It is clear that you have a number of important decisions to make about the case, and I hope I can make those decisions easier to make. You see, Mr. Cooper, this case really is not about rape, sexual assault, or kidnapping. It is not even about the evidence, since there is no evidence to back up any of these charges. As you know, when Mangum picked Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty, and David Evans out of a photo “lineup” on April 4, 2006, the entire process was a joke. Every constitutional provision was violated that day — and violated on purpose, since had police and Michael B. Nifong followed the law, there would be no case — and you would not have to make any decisions regarding the fate of three innocent young men.

Furthermore, I realize that there is a lot of pressure that the NAACP and other black organizations in North Carolina have placed upon you. I will repeat something from an "editorial" in the Wilmington Journal that reflects black sentiment in your state:

After all, as a Democrat, just like Mike Nifong, you need the Black vote for any future political aspirations.

Rumors are you want to dump this case faster than you can say "Joe Cheshire’s nose," but you can’t do it too fast or else the "colored folks" will get mad and hold it against you.

Darn it, we get blamed for everything, don’t we?

Well, you don’t get blamed, Mr. Cooper.

Yes, they are demanding that it goes to trial and that you desperately try to obtain a conviction on something — anything. While the writer of the editorial and others like it may use words like “justice” and “honor” and the like, you have to remember the words of Chan Hall, when he spoke at a rally at North Carolina Central University on April 11, 2006, the same rally where Nifong declared — to vociferous applause — that this case “is not going away.” Hall, a key member of the NCCU student government, told the crowd, according to Newsweek Magazine, "that he wanted to see the Duke students prosecuted “whether it happened or not. It would be justice for things that happened in the past.” By the way, according to K.C. Johnson, who has interviewed people at the April 11 rally, Hall’s comments "reflected the general sentiment in the auditorium that day."

In other words, the members of the black community that are demanding prosecution already are on the record as saying they don’t care about guilt and innocence; they just want a prosecution and show trial. These are not my words, Mr. Cooper; they come from people who were all too happy to let their views be known in a public forum that is available even now for people to see.

So, the people who are demanding prosecution and conviction elsewhere have said they really do not care about guilt and innocence, yet they demand that you continue to hold hostages or else your own political career will be held hostage. That places you in a most difficult situation, I realize. From what I understand, you have aspirations of being governor of North Carolina in the future, and the only way that a Democrat can win a statewide election in your state is to gain a large share of the black vote. Thus, I am sure your advisers are telling you that dismissing charges, no matter how specious and dishonest they might be, will be your political death knell.

Thus, people are telling you, why not just let a jury decide? Dump it all into the lap of a judge and let the judicial system work it all out. That is what the Wilmington Journal editorial told you to do, and it sure would be an easy decision, would it not?

Yet, here is the problem. Should you direct Coman and Winstead to carry this to trial, you also are directing them to suborn perjury, that is, to commit a felony. You would be directing them to lie in court, and to urge others to lie. Granted, prosecutors in this country lie all the time and only rarely are they caught. Indeed, the man who brought this case into the courtroom, Nifong himself, is now looking at losing his law license and maybe even criminal prosecution because he chose to lie. Do you wish to continue Nifong’s lies because the NAACP demands that you do so in order to carry out Chan Hall’s directive?

I know this is not an easy decision for you, and most likely you wish that Nifong had never been born or there never had been the charges in the first place. But here you are, and you face the dilemma of doing what is right, or doing what is wrong, but having more confidence in your political future.

While I realize you will never listen to me, nonetheless I am going to tell you the story of two men who became well-known during the infamous Scottsboro Boys trials of the 1930s. Last December, I wrote about the parallels between the Scottsboro and Duke cases and showed how they are very similar. As I continued to read about the case, I realized that there were two men who played important roles. One was a judge, James E. Horton, who would distinguish himself by sacrificing his political career in order to do what was right. The other man, Thomas E. Knight, Jr., would bow to the political winds of the day and will forever be known as a dishonest prosecutor.

Horton, as you know, became firmly convinced during the trial that Knight was bringing a false case and after one of the defendants was convicted, Horton set aside the conviction, writing:

The Court has heretofore devoted itself particularly to the State’s evidence; this evidence fails to corroborate Victoria Price in those physical facts; the condition of the woman raped necessarily speaking more powerfully than any witness can speak who did not view the performance itself….

History, sacred and profane, and the common experience of mankind teach us that women of the character shown in this case are prone for selfish reasons to make false accusations both of rape and of insult upon the slightest provocation for ulterior purposes. These women are shown, by the great weight of the evidence, on this very day before leaving Chattanooga, to have falsely accused two negroes of insulting them, and of almost precipitating a fight between one of the white boys they were in company with and these two negroes. This tendency on the part of the women shows that they are predisposed to make false accusations upon any occasion whereby their selfish ends may be gained.

The Court will not pursue the evidence any further.

As heretofore stated the law declares that a defendant should not be convicted without corroboration where the testimony of the prosecutrix bears on its face indications of improbability or unreliability and particularly when it is contradicted by other evidence.

The testimony of the prosecutrix in this case is not only uncorroborated, but it also bears on its face indications of improbability and is contradicted by other evidence, and in addition thereto the evidence greatly preponderates in favor of the defendant. It therefore becomes the duty of the Court under the law to grant the motion made in this case.

It is therefore ordered and adjudged by the Court that the motion be granted; that the verdict of the jury in this case and the judgment of the Court sentencing this defendant to death be set aside and that a new trial be and the same is hereby ordered.

What was Horton’s reward? Certainly, the voters of his district did not like what he did:

In May of 1934, Horton, who had been unopposed in his previous election to the bench, faced two primary opponents.  He finished second in the primary, then ran hard in the general election, but lost 9,416 to 6,856.  No one doubted but that his defeat was attributable entirely to his decision in the Scottsboro case.  Horton retired from politics, and devoted his remaining years to private practice and his plantation.  When asked about his decision in a 1966 interview, Horton quoted what he said was a phrase often-repeated in the Horton family, “fiat justitia ruat caelum” — let justice be done though the heavens may fall.  Horton died in 1973 at the age of ninety-five.

Let me repeat that phrase, which I had in the title of this article: “fiat justitia ruat caelum” — let justice be done though the heavens may fall. That is Horton’s legacy, a man who could recite a Latin phrase that reverberated honor, and a man who could go to his grave knowing that in that important moment of his life, he honored his God and his profession and his family name.

Knight, on the other hand, is not treated so kindly. In the end, he is seen as the prosecutor who placed politics over what is morally right, and when he died in 1937, he died as a man who in that important moment of life sold out to a mob of people who could care less about the facts. Those were the Chan Halls of that day. Yes, Hall is black and the mobs of Scottsboro were white, but inside of each person were hearts that scorned justice and all that is right and good.

It is true that with this case, your political future is on the line. I would like to tell you that you can do the right thing and still have a good future as an elected politician, but I know that I cannot say with any certainty that both can be true. Judge Horton was willing to take that risk, but he never regretted losing, especially if he had to sell his soul in order to win.

I can tell you that if you do what is right — and all of us know what that is — you will sleep better at night. You won’t have to direct your prosecutors to lie in court — a violation of everything you supposedly swear to be true — and you will not have to worry about your name being in the Urban Dictionary, something that has happened to Nifong.

Michael B. Nifong chose to placate the mob, and he won his Democratic primary last May and the general election in November. He was riding high; did you notice how he swaggered into court and how he declared himself to be invincible? Then, his lies became exposed and even the North Carolina State Bar itself could no longer pretend as though Nifong simply was "doing his job."

Indeed, Nifong clearly did not have fiat justitia ruat caelum as his personal motto. His motto was: Lie, lie, and lie some more. Today, his career is about to be ruined.