New Prosecution Team Takes on Duke Case
Saturday, January 27, 2007
RALEIGH, N.C. -- Six boxes and two file folders were transferred to the state attorney general's office near Capital Square here last week, and with them comes a shift in a case that has transfixed the nation.
The boxes and files contain the sum total of evidence against three former Duke University lacrosse players charged with sexually assaulting an escort service dancer at an off-campus team party last spring. In the recent months, the actions of the previous prosecutor, Durham District Attorney Michael B. Nifong, have taken center stage. But now that Nifong has asked to be relieved while he faced charges from the North Carolina Bar Association, including withholding evidence from defense lawyers, the focus of the case shifts to state Attorney General Roy Cooper and the two prosecutors he has chosen to evaluate the evidence.
Pressure on them will be enormous. An intense publicity campaign this month painted a sympathetic picture of the players, in Newsweek and on "60 Minutes." And the NAACP held a news conference here last week to call on prosecutors to take into account the accuser's version of events, saying it was aware of "the impact that this case can have on chilling the rights of women, particularly African Americans, to file criminal complaints of sexual violence and exploitation." The three players are white and the accuser is black, and witnesses have reportedly said they heard racist comments when the woman was leaving the house last March 13.
Cooper and the new prosecutors -- James J. Coman and Mary D. Winstead -- declined to be interviewed. But those who know them and who have watched the case closely say the new team is not one to cave under pressure.
"I think people may be surprised," said Irving Joyner, a law professor at North Carolina Central University who has been monitoring the case for the NAACP. "They are not going to bow to public sentiment."
The transfer of the case came after some of the state's evidence appeared to unravel: In December, the director of a DNA lab testified that he and Nifong had decided to omit information showing the presence of DNA from multiple males on the accuser's vaginal and rectal swabs. Nifong dropped first-degree rape charges last month after the accuser said she was no longer certain if she had been penetrated by a penis. The three still face sexual assault and kidnapping charges that carry equally stiff sentences.
The two prosecutors Cooper chose to take on the case -- Coman and Winstead -- are part of a six-lawyer special prosecutions team that handles cases in which the county prosecutor has a conflict of interest or an appearance of one. "The reputation of that office is one of high confidence," said Stephen T. Smith, a Raleigh defense attorney. "They fight hard, and they fight fair."
Spencer Barrow, a Raleigh lawyer who went to law school with Coman and is a close friend, said Coman's first job out of law school was as the police department's attorney in Greensboro, N.C., and he quickly moved on to the prosecutor's office. He later joined the attorney general's office and was the director of the State Bureau of Investigation from 1993 until 1999.
"He's very tenacious, and he has a tremendous amount of integrity," Barrow said. "He is not going to make decisions based on publicity."
In 2004 he prosecuted the second trial of Alan Gell, on death row for a 1995 murder, after it was revealed that the original prosecutors in the state attorney general's office had withheld evidence helpful to the defense. In the second trial, Gell was acquitted and set free after nine years behind bars.
"His experience with the Gell case shows that he doesn't dismiss a case unless the evidence for innocence is extremely strong," said Joe Kennedy, a law professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
When the original prosecutors were taken before the state bar for their actions, Coman testified on their behalf and said the evidence -- a taped conversation in which a star witness said she had to make up a story for the police -- was not wrongfully withheld. His comments touched off a furor among defense attorneys, and Coman later said his comments were incorrect. The issue involved an interpretation of case law, and "it was an issue good minds could disagree on," said James B. Maxwell, who represented the original prosecutors in the bar proceedings.