Duke lacrosse rape hoax DA admits making improper statements
The district attorney who prosecuted three Duke University lacrosse players accused of rape took the stand in his own ethics trial Friday and acknowledged he made some inappropriate statements during the investigation.
The North Carolina State Bar charged Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong with violating the state's rules of professional conduct, alleging he withheld the DNA test results from the players' defense attorneys, lied to the court and bar investigators, and making misleading and inflammatory comments about the three athletes.
During the investigation last year, Nifong had calling the players a "bunch of hooligans" and confidently proclaimed he wouldn't allow Durham to become known for "a bunch of lacrosse players from Duke raping a black girl."
"I think clearly some of the statements I made were improper," Nifong said on the witness stand Friday. "The comment about race was not a comment that should have been made."
If convicted by the bar's disciplinary committee, Nifong could be stripped of his license to practice law in the state.
One of the players -- all were later cleared of all charges by the state attorney general -- also testified Friday about the fear he felt when he heard he had been indicted and the faith he and his teammates had that DNA testing would clear their names.
"We went from being viewed as athletes to being viewed as rapists," Reade Seligmann said.
He said he had been "more than happy to give DNA."
Those DNA tests failed to show any physical contact between the accuser and the members of the lacrosse team, but Nifong still pressed ahead with the case and won indictments against Seligmann, Dave Evans and Collin Finnerty, who was also in the courtroom Friday.
Seligmann broke into tears as he described how his attorney got a call from Nifong notifying him of the indictment. He said the attorney glanced his way and said, "She picked you."
"My dad just fell to the floor, and I just sat on the ground," Seligmann said. "And I said, 'My life is over.' ... The first thing I thought about was, 'How am I going to tell my Mom."
His attorneys quickly pulled together ATM receipts, cell phone records, time-stamped photos and the testimony of the cab driver who took Seligmann home the night of the off-campus party where the woman, hired to perform as a stripper, said she had been attacked.
"I just felt helpless," Seligmann said. "I don't know much about the law, but you hear the word alibi, and you think that's one of the first things a prosecutor would want to have. You don't charge an innocent person. I could never understand it."
Nifong's attorneys hoped to finish presenting their defense by Friday evening.
The three-member panel hearing the case is expected to deliver a verdict not long after the trial concludes, perhaps as early as Saturday.
Since opening its case on Tuesday, the state bar has largely focused on the DNA testing, specifically when Nifong learned about the results and when he shared that information with the defense.
The party was in March, 2006. Nifong released an initial report on the DNA testing in May 2006, and defense attorneys quickly trumpeted that private lab DNA Security Inc. had been unable to find a conclusive match between the accuser and any lacrosse players.
However, lab director Brian Meehan testified Wednesday that he had told Nifong about the full extent of the test results -- specifically, that the lab had found matches to other men -- as early as April 10, 2006, a week before the first indictments.
Meehan said he and Nifong never conspired to keep the results from defense attorneys. He said that the initial DNA report was never intended to be all-inclusive and that Nifong never asked for a final and complete report on his lab's findings.
Evans' defense lawyer Brad Bannon testified Thursday that Nifong had said in court documents and hearings in May, June and September that he had no more evidence that could be considered helpful to the defense, yet it wasn't until October 27 that Nifong gave the defense the raw test data from DNA Security.
"It just kept getting worse," Bannon recalled. "I would find another one of the items that had male DNA that excluded our clients, and their teammates, and then another, and then another, and then another. ...
"We were all bewildered at the fact that it hadn't been provided to us before."
Nifong has declined several requests for interviews in recent months. His last public comment on the case before the ethics trial was a one-page statement released the day the case collapsed. In it, he apologized, but only "to the extent that I made judgments that ultimately proved to be incorrect."
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