By Sylvia Adcock
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 17, 2007
RALEIGH, N.C., June 16 -- Hours after he was found guilty of ethics violations in his prosecution of three Duke University lacrosse players falsely accused of sexual assault, Durham County District Attorney Michael B. Nifong on Saturday surrendered his law license to the state bar and said he would waive his right to appeal.
A three-person North Carolina State Bar disciplinary panel, on the fifth day of an ethics hearing, said the evidence showed that Nifong had withheld crucial information from the students' defense attorneys and engaged in "dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation" during his prosecution of the case. The panelists were about to announce whether Nifong should be disbarred when his attorney announced that Nifong had decided disbarment was the appropriate punishment. Nifong had already said he would quit his Durham position.
It marks the first time in North Carolina that a sitting district attorney has been disbarred.
The panel chairman, Lane Williamson, said after a 35-minute deliberation that the panel agreed "there is no disciplinary action short of disbarment appropriate in this case given the magnitude of the offenses found." Calling the case a "fiasco," he said that Nifong's motives appeared to arise not from any evil but rather from "self-interest and self-deception."
Joseph Cheshire V, who represents one of the players, David Evans of Bethesda, said he thinks Nifong saw where the case was headed. "It's kind of like the man who is about to be executed manages to tie a bedsheet to the bed and hang himself," he said. "He manages to go out with some sense of control over his own destiny."
The bar panel said his comments about the case -- which included referring to the Duke lacrosse team as a "bunch of hooligans" -- heightened public condemnation of the accused, a violation of ethics rules.
Earlier, the families of the three exonerated players fought back tears as they relived the moments when they learned that their sons would be indicted in connection with allegations that a stripper was raped and beaten at a March 2006 team party.
"He let out a cry I'll never forget," said Mary Ellen Finnerty, mother of Collin Finnerty, another player. "He howled. He collapsed on a bed. We all cried. . . . No one can give us these 14 months back."
The three players -- Evans; Finnerty, of Garden City, N.Y.; and Reade Seligmann of Essex Fells, N.J. -- were charged with rape, kidnapping and first-degree sexual offense last spring. This January, Nifong turned the case over to the state attorney general's office because of counts filed against him by the bar. The attorney general investigated the case and found the accuser's version of events unreliable and said that the young men were innocent.
David Evans's father, also named David, testified Friday that his son learned he would be indicted just days before graduation. After the indictment, a job offer at J.P. Morgan was rescinded, with the firm saying it couldn't hire someone facing a felony charge. As his father spoke, Evans held his mother's hand as she wiped away tears. An attorney for the state bar asked Evans's father about his reaction to Nifong's apology Friday when he said he was sorry for any pain he had caused the families. "It resonated with me that he said he wanted his son to be proud of him," he said.
But the elder Evans said he was upset with Nifong's comments under questioning yesterday in which he said he still believed "something happened" in the bathroom of that house that night: "I have a hard time with that. I don't accept it." Nifong showed no reaction.
While Nifong's attorneys argued earlier that Nifong didn't knowingly violate the rules, the bar's prosecutor, Douglas Brocker, argued that as a 28-year prosecutor, Nifong should have known the rules of professional conduct.
Rae Evans, mother of David Evans, said the families do not take any pleasure from the proceedings.
"I don't think our families will take any joy from the inevitable decision from the bar," she said during an earlier break. "It's not about joy. It's collateral damage. To the lacrosse family, to our families, to [the accuser's] family, to the Nifong family," she said.