Duke case could derail Nifong's 3-decade career as prosecutor
Forced by allegations of prosecutorial misconduct to recuse himself, the district attorney who drove the Duke lacrosse sexual assault case could end up losing much more than the opportunity to try a case he still believes in.
For Mike Nifong, the missteps of the past 10 months have the potential to end a career that started nearly three decades ago, when he signed up at the Durham County district attorney's office as an unpaid assistant.
"You don't easily recover from something like this," said James Coleman, a Duke University law professor and frequent Nifong critic. "That's what's so unfortunate about this. He had a career - a long career, a reputation of being an honest and fair prosecutor - and for some reason, his conduct in this case was inconsistent with that.
"It's just bizarre. This is the biggest case by far that he's handled and he didn't do a very good job, and I think that's going to haunt him."
When Nifong asked the state attorney general's office on Friday to take over the case of three lacrosse players accused of sexually assaulting a stripper hired to perform at a team party, he was less than two weeks into his first full term as Durham County's elected district attorney. Now, he must defend himself against ethics charges that could lead to his disbarment.
Should North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper dismiss the case against Dave Evans, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann - and legal experts have said there appears to be little evidence to support the charges - their families might try to file a civil lawsuit against Nifong.
If and when he returns to the courtroom, Nifong will have to rebuild a reputation tainted by the vast attention generated by the lacrosse case.
"Nothing happens in a vacuum," said Garry Frank, a district attorney in four North Carolina counties and president of the state Conference of District Attorneys. "It's something that he and his office will have to work through. It will be a challenge for him."
The conference offered Nifong a variety of assistance in September - an offer that went unanswered. Frank said Nifong appeared surprised in late December that his colleagues were concerned about his handling of the case, and they later formally called on Nifong to recuse himself.
"Folks that have to do the things we do on a day-to-day basis quickly learn take good advice when you can get it," Frank said. Asked if Nifong erred in failing to do so, Frank said, "the public would have to make a judgment on that."
A more immediate concern for Nifong is the pending ethics charges that accuse him of making misleading and inflammatory comments about the lacrosse team, including calling them "nothing but a bunch of hooligans." A hearing on those charges is set for May.
John Banzhaf, a law professor at George Washington University, thinks more ethics charges are forthcoming. The director of a private lab has said he and Nifong agreed to keep out of a report given to the defense results of DNA testing that found genetic material from several unknown men on the accuser's body and underwear, and that none of the DNA matched that of the three indicted players.
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