By Sylvia Adcock and Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, June 16, 2007; A03
RALEIGH, N.C., June 15 -- Testifying in defense of his conduct in the sexual assault case against three Duke University lacrosse players, Durham County District Attorney Michael B. Nifong cried and conceded that he made mistakes, apologized to the accused and their families for the "pain" the prosecution had caused, and announced his intention to resign.
"To the extent that my actions have caused pain to Finnertys, the Seligmanns, the Evans, I apologize," he said Friday during the emotional conclusion to his direct testimony at a bar hearing. "To the extent that my actions have brought disrespect or disrepute to the bar, to my community, I apologize."
But through the tears, and in a halting, quavering voice, he stuck by the contention that he had only been trying to "do the right thing," and did not intentionally withhold evidence or try to mislead.
"I cannot admit that I told a lie that I did not tell, and I still intend to defend myself against these allegations," he said.
A three-person panel of the North Carolina State Bar is considering allegations that Nifong violated ethics rules while pursuing rape allegations, brought by a stripper hired to perform at a team party, against the three players. The state attorney general declared in April that the players were "innocent."
The bar complaint accuses Nifong of making prejudicial statements in the case's early stages, lying to a judge and withholding exculpatory DNA evidence. If he is found guilty, the panel could suspend his law license or disbar him.
Regarding the ethics counts, Nifong took a middle route. He acknowledged that some of his public statements did violate rules, but he characterized the withholding of the exculpatory DNA evidence as unintentional, a bureaucratic mishap.
As the case drew ever larger media coverage, Nifong had, among other things, referred to the players as a "bunch of hooligans" and suggested that they were protecting one another behind a "wall of silence."
He testified here that some of his own statements in retrospect "made me cringe" and when asked by his own lawyers if the statements violate the rules, Nifong answered, "Yes, I would have to say so."
Asked if his statements could have made the media scrutiny more intense, Nifong said: "It's possible. The media attention would have been tremendous anyway. But I did not intend for my statements to have that effect."
Nifong denied that the months of withholding the DNA evidence -- which showed other men's DNA present but not that of the accused players -- was malicious. Instead he said it was a result of an oversight caused in part by his lack of careful notes.
He testified that he did not ask the DNA lab director to omit the complete findings from the report and became aware of their absence only after defense attorneys discovered it on their own.
"My first reaction was a variation of 'Oh, crap,' " he testified.
Had he taken detailed notes of his discussion with the lab director when he was told of the presence of the other men's DNA -- which he did not -- he would have turned it over to the defense, and they would have known six months earlier.
The ramifications of his pursuit of the allegations also became clearer today, as Reade Seligmann testified about the effect the allegations had on his family.
Seligmann, one of the accused players, choked back tears and brought tears to the eyes of family members when he described how he learned that he had been picked out of a lineup by the accuser. He was in his attorney's office, he said, when the secretary came in and said, "Mike Nifong is on the phone."
"He picks up the phone," Seligmann said, referring to the lawyer. "You could see the color in his face just changing. . . . The room was spinning. My dad just fell to the floor, and I just sat on the ground, and I said, 'My life is over.' "
Seligmann then called his mother.
"I said, 'Mom, are you alone right now?' She said, 'Yeah -- what's going on?' " he testified. "I said, 'She picked me.' I could hear her on the other end of the phone. The life was just sucked right out of her."
But it was the climax of Nifong's testimony that was the day's riveting focal point.
After hours of testimony in which he calmly explained details of the case and showed only a few signs of tension -- nervous eye-blinking and swallowing -- Nifong was asked if he wanted to add anything else.
The address that followed reflected a remarkable turnabout not only in the legal sense but also personally.
Last year, Nifong had taken on the case with classic prosecutorial bluster. He became a nationally known figure.
Then as the case collapsed, he maintained an aloof silence that mystified even the shrinking ranks of his defenders. After the attorney general cleared the players, Nifong issued an apology, but only in a written statement.
The tearful address at a hearing ended the emotional distance.
"Throughout my time," he began, his voice rising weakly over the last word, then added, "this is going to be difficult."
"I will go to my grave being associated with this case," he offered and then his voice rising again. "And that's okay. I don't have a problem with that. I took the responsibility on myself."
Not everyone found it sincere.
Joseph Cheshire V, who represents David Evans of Bethesda, called the apology "a cynical ploy to save his law license" and added: "It came too late."
Whoriskey reported from Miami.