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Legacy of Duke case: a rein on prosecutors?

Wronged lacrosse players seek, in any settlement, more state oversight of district attorneys' offices.

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The misguided rape case that canceled Duke University's lacrosse season, caused a national uproar, and sent a disgraced district attorney to jail for a day last Friday is causing a handful of states to ponder a troubling question:

Do prosecutors have too much power?

In New York, the General Assembly's Codes Committee recently held hearings on whether prosecutors need more oversight.

In California, three court-related bills, await Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's signature, would study or reform how police and prosecutors handle eyewitness identifications, the interrogation of suspects accused of serious crimes, and the use of jailhouse informants.

In Durham, N.C., itself, where three Duke lacrosse players were charged then exonerated over accusations of rape, the city is mulling a settlement proposed by the players' lawyers that would cost a reported $30 million and would force city officials to push for regulatory changes that would mean more oversight of prosecutors.

Some observers see a potential sea change in US attitudes over prosecutorial power.

"If you look at how American politics has developed in the last 20 years, there's a consistent pattern of getting tough on crime, reducing civil liberties, and giving more power to prosecutors," says Robert "KC" Johnson, a Brooklyn College professor who covered the Duke case through a daily blog. "This is really the first high profile event ... where there's been a very strong push by most people, regardless of ideology, in the other direction."

Other legal experts say the Duke case is an isolated incident in which an overzealous and relatively inexperienced prosecutor was thrust into a high-profile case involving a black exotic dancer who accused three white university students of rape at a boozy off-campus party.

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