The spotlight of injustice in the criminal system is back on Durham County, N.C., made famous by the misadventures of former district attorney Mike Nifong in the Duke University lacrosse case in 2006. Nifong ultimately stepped out of the case when it was revealed he had withheld exculpatory DNA tests on the players, and he was subsequently forced out of office, disbarred, convicted of contempt of court and jailed for a day in 2007.
But that wasn’t the only case Nifong ever handled, or mishandled. As an assistant district attorney, he also prosecuted the double murder case against Darryl Howard in 1995, who was convicted and sentenced to 80 years in prison. That conviction has since been overturned, and ex-lawyer Nifong was back in Durham County Superior Court Monday to explain his role in withholding a key police memo and other evidence from the defense 21 years ago. A Durham judge overturned Howard’s conviction in 2014, calling the case “a horrendous prosecution,” but a North Carolina appeals court ruled in April that prosecutors were entitled to contest the reversal with a full evidentiary hearing. Which brings the notorious Mr. Nifong back to the courthouse where he was last seen surrendering (above) in September 2007.
On Monday, Nifong, now 65, waited in a conference room like any other witness, and spoke briefly to WRAL-TV’s Julia Sims. “Somebody believes I have relevant testimony to this, and I’m going to give it just like anyone else would,” Nifong told her. “I’ll get on the stand and tell the truth and make of it what they wish.”
The truth, from Mike Nifong, should be interesting. It’s worth noting that Nifong’s successor and former protege, Tracey Cline, was also forced out of the top prosecutor’s office due to misconduct, and that Cline’s successor and top deputy, Roger Echols, continues to battle to uphold Howard’s conviction. The Innocence Project has taken on Howard’s case, won the 2014 reversal of the conviction, and is now seeking sanctions against the Durham prosecutors for further withholding of evidence from 2011, which may be another component of this week’s post-conviction hearing for Howard.
The Post’s Radley Balko, on his blog “The Watch,” detailed the many problems with the Howard case in 2014, noting that Durham County had not seemed to learn anything from the Duke lacrosse case. To summarize, 29-year-old Doris Washington and her 13-year-old daughter Nishonda were both beaten and sexually assaulted in 1991. The fact that they were sexually assaulted wasn’t made public, but an informant told police they had been raped and seemed to know the motive — Doris Washington’s alleged involvement in a drug ring — and Nifong apparently chose not to share that with the defense.
A DNA test on semen found on the teenager excluded Howard, but Nifong and the lead detective claimed that was irrelevant. Balko wrote that the lead detective “testified at trial that his murder investigation never even considered the possibility that the women had been sexually assaulted, a point Nifong also reemphasized in his closing argument. This is clearly contradicted by the internal memo about the statement from the informant.”
The semen later matched another man, a felon with a history of assaulting women who was a member of the gang selling drugs in Durham during the time when the slayings occurred. In 2011, Durham police interviewed the man on videotape. And though a judge had ordered the police to turn over such information to the defense in 2011, they didn’t do so until last month, five years later, leading to a motion for sanctions against the current prosecutors.
In the Duke case in 2006, when Nifong was the chief district attorney in Durham, a woman told police that she had been raped at a house party held by the men’s lacrosse team. DNA samples were taken from three suspects picked out of a team poster by the woman. None of the men were matches, but Nifong declined to disclose that to the men’s lawyers, instead supplying thousands of pages of raw DNA data. He soon stepped down from the case and the state attorney general cleared the players of all charges. Nifong was disbarred in June 2007 and found guilty of contempt of court in September 2007. He was ordered to serve one day in jail.
In a 2014 book about the case by William D. Cohan, Nifong maintained that when he stepped down from the case, “he believed it was winnable” and that the woman ”seemed to really have everything together,” according to a New York Times review. Raleigh News and Observer reporter Joseph Neff, who covered the case and also reviewed the book, noted that the word “‘Nifong’ became a synonym for railroading” and that none of Nifong’s claims matched reality. Author Stuart Taylor Jr. dissects the book and Nifong’s claims here.
K.C. Johnson, a history professor at Brooklyn College who wrote extensively about the Duke lacrosse case, told Balko: “I’m absolutely certain that Mike Nifong didn’t just wake up one day during the Duke lacrosse case and decide to start committing misconduct. He must have done it previously.” Defense attorney Barry Scheck, one of Howard’s attorneys for the Innocence Project, added, “When you see that kind of misconduct once, it has likely happened before. Behavior that egregious is typically the work of a serial offender.”
The evidentiary hearing for Howard is expected to last three days.