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THE NATION

Duke case D.A. loses law license

Nifong doesn't dispute a guilty verdict from a panel that says he engaged in deceit in the rape prosecution.

June 17, 2007|David Zucchino | Times Staff Writer

DURHAM, N.C. — Dist. Atty. Mike Nifong was stripped of his law license Saturday and banned from ever practicing law again for grossly mishandling a rape prosecution in which three Duke University lacrosse players were falsely accused.

A disciplinary panel of the North Carolina State Bar, saying Nifong had engaged in "dishonesty, fraud, deceit and misrepresentation," found him guilty of withholding evidence, lying to judges and making prejudicial pretrial statements in the highly charged case.

"This matter has been a fiasco," said F. Lane Williamson, a Charlotte, N.C., lawyer who headed the three-member panel, describing a case that divided Durham along race and class lines before becoming a referendum on the power of a reckless and unchecked prosecutor to subvert justice.

After the convictions were announced but before penalties were imposed, Nifong said he would surrender his law license and forfeit his right to appeal. He indicated that he did not dispute the panel's decision.

"He hopes this helps restore some of the confidence in the criminal justice system of North Carolina," said Nifong's lawyer, David Freedman.

The verdicts came more than a year after Nifong drew world attention to Durham by stating unequivocally that the three white players had gang-raped a black stripper while subjecting her to racial slurs. He called the players "a bunch of hooligans" and said they had committed one of the most heinous crimes in Durham's history.

Two months ago, the state's attorney general cleared the athletes and called the district attorney a "rogue prosecutor" who had engaged in a "tragic rush to condemn."

The panel deliberated for an hour before deciding that Nifong had withheld exculpatory DNA evidence and had lied about it to judges and defense lawyers as well as in written responses to the bar.

The panel said his public comments before and after the players were indicted last year prejudiced potential jurors and heightened "public condemnation of the accused."

Nifong, who tearfully announced on the witness stand Friday that he would resign regardless of the verdict, sat Saturday with his chin on his hand, watching Williamson say "yes" 28 times -- each one indicating a guilty verdict on a specific count.

The verdicts brought further humiliation to Nifong, a lawyer who had spent his entire professional life in the Durham County district attorney's office, starting in 1978 as a volunteer. Already vilified in opinion columns and on blogs last summer, Nifong has now been certified by North Carolina's legal profession as an outcast who sullied the reputation of the state's legal system.

Some of the most damning testimony against him came from Marsha Goodenow, an assistant district attorney in Charlotte, who testified as an expert on legal ethics.

Because of Nifong, Goodenow said, "there is a perception that justice might depend on who your lawyer is ... how much money you have ... whether you're white or black."

In dramatic testimony Friday, Nifong admitted he had made improper statements, withheld evidence and misled judges and lawyers. But he said that the violations were unintentional and that his aggressive pursuit of indictments was a misguided attempt to force people with knowledge of the alleged rape to come forward.

"Whatever mistakes I made in this case," Nifong said, "they're my mistakes."

Williamson indicated that the panel had little problem deciding that lawyers for the bar had met the burden in the civil case of proving with "clear, cogent and convincing evidence" that Nifong violated the bar's code of professional conduct.

He said Nifong deliberately withheld evidence showing that DNA from at least four unidentified males -- and none from the players -- had been found on the underwear and body of the stripper. Nifong then lied about it to judges and defense lawyers and made inflammatory and misleading comments to the press and public, the panel concluded.

Nifong pursued the deeply flawed case while locked in a tight election race to keep the seat he'd been appointed to. It was his first political campaign, after 28 years in the courtroom or district attorney's office.

"We can draw no other conclusion than that those initial statements he made were to further his political ambitions," Williamson said.

Nifong's friends and colleagues have described him as strong-willed, high-tempered and stubborn to a fault. But before the Duke case, he had a reputation as an honest and effective prosecutor who had tried hundreds of cases in a professional manner.

Even after he conceded on the stand Friday that he was likely to be found guilty, Nifong clung to his position that "something happened" at 610 N. Buchanan Blvd. in Durham, the site of a lacrosse team party in March 2006 where the stripper was hired to perform. He conceded only that it may have been "intimidation" rather than sexual assault, a comment that drew derision from the former defendants and their parents at the hearings.

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