Patrick Fitzgerald, the Special Prosecutor in the I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby case, summed it up best: “We need the truth from government officials.”

When I first read that little blip in Newsweek’s Perspectives feature, and having forgotten momentarily who Fitzgerald was, I mistakenly assumed that he was referring to Mike Nifong, the now disgraced prosecutor in the Duke University rape case.

Amen, brother! That was my first reaction. But as I realized that Fitzgerald was referring to Libby and not Nifong, I also began to think about the similarities of the two cases, and this conundrum: Why is it that Libby, who lied to prosecutors is going to prison, while a prosecutor (Nifong) who lied in order to falsely put someone else in prison only faces the loss of his law license?

Certainly, the final chapters have not yet been written in the Libby and Nifong sagas. Who knows what lies ahead. A complete or partial pardon for Libby? Or perhaps, additional investigations into Nifong’s actions? But as they are currently told, these stories have striking similarities.

Libby, the vice president’s chief of staff, lied about his knowledge of a media leak which outed Valerie Plame as an undercover CIA operative. Supposedly, Libby did this to protect his job. It is a federal crime to knowingly reveal the identity of a covert CIA agent. President Bush had vowed that whoever had leaked Plame’s identity would be fired. No one has been charged with the intentional leak of Plame’s identity.

Nifong also lied to protect his job. The North Carolina prosecutor was accused of deceiving the court where three Duke lacrosse players were awaiting trial on charges that they raped a stripper during a college frat party. And as we now know, those charges against the Duke athletes were bogus.

State bar disciplinary authorities charged Nifong with making inflammatory statements about the case, lying to the court, and withholding DNA evidence which would have helped exonerate the Duke defendants. The supposed motivation for Nifong’s unethical behavior was a forthcoming election against a tough challenger.

So that’s the setting. One prominent figure faces criminal charges and prison for lying to prosecutors, while a prosecutor only faces ethics charges for lying about a defendant ... well three defendants actually. But the point is the same.

Not surprisingly, the defenses offered by both Libby and Nifong are remarkably similar, and according to many, both equally lacking in credibility. Though he never testified at trial, the thrust of Libby’s defense was based on the vagueness of human memory. In essence, he claimed he simply was unable to recall who told him about Plame’s covert role and that the information he provided to investigators was not knowingly false.

Nifong also characterized his misstatements as unintentional. According to the Washington Post, Nifong testified at last week’s disciplinary hearing that he had only been trying to “do the right thing,” and “did not intentionally withhold evidence or try to mislead.” And like Libby, Nifong vowed to defend himself against allegations that he intentionally lied or withheld evidence. Wow!

A New York Times columnist recently suggested “[t]here is a perception that justice might depend on who your lawyer is, it might depend on how much money you have, it may depend on whether you’re white or black.” All true, and all unfortunate.

What is equaling troubling, however, is the idea that lying to prosecutors is somehow worse than a lying prosecutor. Both are wrong and both deserve to be punished. But it’s going to take a while for me to wrap my mind around the idea that lying to authorities to protect someone from going to prison is a greater sin than that of authorities lying to falsely imprison someone for a crime they did not commit. The whole thing makes my head hurt.

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