Duke Lacrosse Prosecutor Faces Own Trial

By Sylvia Adcock
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, June 12, 2007; 3:58 PM

RALEIGH, N.C., June 12 -- Durham District Attorney Michael B. Nifong, under fire from the North Carolina State Bar for his handling of sexual assault allegations against three Duke lacrosse players last year, appeared in court today to defend his own conduct on grounds it was a prosecutor's duty to pursue a case if he believed a crime had occurred.

"It is not unethical to pursue what some may see as an unwinnable case," said Nifong's lawyer, David Freedman, as his client sat at a table before a three-person panel of the bar's Disciplinary Hearing Commission.

Nifong is fighting to keep his law license. The allegations him include making pretrial inflammatory statements, withholding evidence helpful to the defense and lying about it to a judge. The three players he charged were exonerated in April after their accuser's story fell apart.

In an opening statement, the state bar's attorney, Katherine E. Jean, said that when the sexual assault complaint came to Nifong's attention, "he was engaged in a contentious political campaign to keep his job." She said he "immediately recognized that this case would garner significant media attention."

Jean said Nifong decided to handle the case himself and held a meeting with police on March 24, 2006. At that time he learned that the accuser had already twice recanted to police and had given conflicting accounts of the number of men involved in the alleged assault, ranging from three to five to 20, Jean said. She said Nifong was also told that another dancer hired to perform at the lacrosse team's party that night had said the accuser's story was "a crock."

Nevertheless, Nifong left the meeting and began giving a series of interviews in which "he detailed [the accuser's] allegations on national television as if they were fact," Jean said.

Freedman said Nifong did not realize the amount of media attention that the case would generate, and he argued that his client had reason to believe a crime had occurred.

After the accuser gave police her account, police went to the house where the team party had taken place and found everyone gone, Freedman said, "even the people who lived there." He said that aroused police suspicions.

And when witnesses in the neighborhood were interviewed, they told of hearing racial slurs from the lacrosse players directed at the women leaving the house that night, Freedman said.

The three former Duke lacrosse players -- Reade Seligmann, 21, of Essex Fells. N.J.; Collin Finnerty, 20, of Garden City, N.Y.; and David Evans, 24, of Bethesda, Md. -- were initially charged with rape, sexual assault and kidnapping in the case after the accuser, 28, a college student working as an exotic dancer, complained that she had been attacked after being hired to strip at a March, 13, 2006, team party at an off-campus house occupied by two of the lacrosse team's captains.

The case highlighted racial tensions in the Durham area and sparked a national debate about racism and class privilege. The three former Duke players are white, come from privileged backgrounds and attended one of the nation's elite universities, while the accuser is African American, a single mother and attended historically black North Carolina Central University.

Nifong dropped rape charges against the three in December and recused himself from the case after it was revealed that the accuser had repeatedly changed her story and the prosecutor had withheld exculpatory evidence from the defense. The following month, the case was transferred from Nifong's office to the state attorney general's office.

In April, North Carolina Attorney General Roy A. Cooper dropped the remaining sexual assault and kidnapping charges against the three and proclaimed them "innocent."

Cooper had harsh words for Nifong at that time, describing the district attorney as a "rogue prosecutor" who pushed forward "unchecked" and "lost the ability to see clearly" in the matter.

"We believe that these cases were the result of a tragic rush to accuse and a failure to verify serious allegations," Cooper said.

As a result of an ethics complaint against Nifong, the district attorney now faces possible disbarment and a fine if convicted before the Disciplinary Hearing Commission. The hearing is an administrative proceeding that operates like a civil trial. It is being held in a state Court of Appeals courtroom here.

Nifong is expected to testify later in the hearing, which is scheduled to last at least four days.

Staff writer William Branigin contributed to this report from Washington.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company