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Disciplinary Committee Finds Nifong Broke Ethics Rules

Posted June 16, 2007

— Mike Nifong violated 27 of 32 rules of professional conduct during his prosecution of three Duke University lacrosse players falsely accused of rape, a disciplinary committee ruled Saturday. (Watch committee chairman F. Lane Williamson read the decision.)

The committee must now decide if the longtime prosecutor in Durham County, who has already pledged to resign his post as district attorney, should be stripped of his law license.

The North Carolina State Bar charged Nifong with making misleading statements misleading and inflammatory comments about the three athletes, lying to both the court and bar investigators, and withholding critical DNA test results from the players' defense attorneys.

The committee, after deliberating for a little more than an hour, unanimously agreed with the bar on almost every charge, including the most serious allegations -- that Nifong's actions involved "dishonesty, fraud, deceit and misrepresentation."

Nifong's attorneys and State Bar counsel spent the morning offering their closing statements to the three-member disciplinary committee.

Dudley Witt, said his client made "multiple, egregious mistakes" but none were made intentionally.

"It didn't click," Witt said as he tried to explain away one of his client's errors. "His mind is just his mind. That's the way it works. It just didn't click."

"How can you possibly explain that away?" said disciplinary committee chairman F. Lane Williamson, who repeatedly interrupted Witt as he discussed the DNA testing during his closing statement.

"It wasn't just one little oversight," Williamson said later. "This was conduct over an extended period in a very high-profile case."

The DNA tests found genetic material from several males in the underwear and body of the accuser, Crystal Gail Mangum, but none from any lacrosse player. Aware of those results, Nifong still moved forward with the case and won indictments against David Evans, Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty.

After the decision was read Saturday afternoon, Evans father, David Evans Sr., testified that the stress he and his family were put under for more than 13 months as the family waited not knowing what would happen while questioning why Nifong pressed ahead with the case.

"He placed his career and reputation on a woman he didn't interview and persisted with this case and then gave up the case because of a conflict of interest," Evans said. "And then the word of the Attorney General of North Carolina says they didn't do it."

Special prosecutors with the North Carolina Attorney General's Office later concluded the three players were "innocent" victims of a rogue prosecutor's "tragic rush to accuse."

Bar prosecutor Douglas Brocker told the disciplinary committee that as Nifong investigated the allegations a stripper was raped and beaten at a March 2006 party thrown by Duke's lacrosse team, he charged "forward toward condemnation and injustice," weaving a "web of deception that has continued up through this hearing."

"Mr. Nifong did not act as a minister of justice, but as a minister of injustice," Brocker said.

A tearful Nifong pledged Friday to resign as district attorney -- no matter the outcome of the ethics trial. If convicted, the committee could suspend Nifong's law license or take it away entirely.

Even if disbarred, Nifong's troubles aren't over -- the players' attorneys have pledged to seek criminal contempt charges next week in Durham from a judge who has already taken care to remind Nifong he has the authority to impose punishment.

"It has become increasingly apparent, during the course of this week, in some ways that it might not have been before, that my presence as the district attorney in Durham is not furthering the cause of justice," Nifong said, adding later: "My community has suffered enough."

But even after saying he would resign, Nifong was incapable of agreeing that no crime was committed. Asked late Friday if he still believed the accuser was attacked, Nifong paused for several seconds before answering that while he could not say it was a sexual assault, "something happened to make everybody leave that scene very quickly."

That enraged the players' defense attorneys, who immediately rejected Nifong's attempt to take responsibility by leaving office.

"(The accuser) and Mike Nifong are the only two people in the country who believe something happened in that bathroom," said Seligmann's attorney, Jim Cooney. "She is mentally unbalanced, and he -- as was pointed out today -- operated in a world in which he never considers ethics or his duties."

Nifong acknowledged Friday he was likely to be punished by the disciplinary committee for maybe getting "carried away a little bit" when talking about the case. He said he regretted some of his statements, including a confident proclamation that he wouldn't allow Durham to become known for "a bunch of lacrosse players from Duke raping a black girl."

Brocker pounded on such statements on Saturday, saying Nifong "repeatedly trampled" on the constitutional rights of the lacrosse team. There is simply no way, Brocker said, that Nifong couldn't have known he was making improper comments to reporters.

"They (were) clearly going to cause public condemnation of anybody who was charged," Brocker said.

Brocker also focused on when Nifong learned about the full extent of the DNA test results and when he shared that information with the defense.

Nifong gave defense attorneys an initial report on the DNA testing in May 2006 that said private lab DNA Security Inc. had been unable to find a conclusive match between the accuser and any lacrosse players.

But lab director Brian Meehan testified this week that he told Nifong as early as April 10, 2006 -- a week before Seligmann and Finnerty were indicted -- about the more detailed test results.

"The positive results were the truth," Brocker said. "They just weren't the whole truth."

Nifong testified when he gave the defense the initial report, he "believed at the time that I had given them everything." In court documents and hearings in May, June and September, he told two different judges that he had no more evidence that could be considered helpful to the defense. He said he didn't realize until months later that the additional DNA information was missing.

"My first reaction was a variation of 'oh crap,'" Nifong said. "'I didn't give them this?'"

It was an argument that appeared to carry little weight with the committee.

"He knew. He admits he knew," Williamson said during Witt's closing. "How could he not know if he had read it? How could he not know?"

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