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Ex-Lacrosse Coach to Sue Duke for Slander; Nifong Blamed in Players' Suit

Posted January 16, 2008
Updated January 23, 2008

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— Former Duke University men's lacrosse Coach Mike Pressler filed an amended complaint against the university Wednesday, claiming slander.

Pressler claims Duke's senior vice president for public affairs, John Burness, falsely told a Newsday reporter that Pressler was fired because "he had not adequately supervised his team," which was at the center of the high-profile criminal investigation into an exotic dancer's claims that she was raped at a lacrosse team party.

The complaint alleges that, in the April 9, 2007, Newsday article, Burness "drew defamatory contrasts between" Pressler and Duke's new lacrosse coach, John Danowski, saying the difference between the two coaches was "night and day."

The complaint also cites a June 7, 2007, statement to The Associated Press in which Burness wrote that Pressler's termination "was essential for the team to have a change of leadership in order to move forward."

"The defendant's devastating and false claim that Coach Pressler needed to be replaced in his capacity as the Duke men's lacrosse coach was intentional, malicious, defamatory and slanderous," the complaint said.

Pressler was forced to resign on April 5, 2006, shortly after Durham police began investigating the rape allegations. In March 2007, he and Duke reached an undisclosed financial settlement, which Pressler claims was violated when Burness made comments about him.

In Wednesday's filing, Pressler also asked to delete his previous request to rescind the confidential agreement between himself and the university.

Pressler is the only Duke official who lost a job as a result of the case, even though an internal university investigation concluded he was the only school employee to take significant action when accusations of wrongdoing – including disorderly conduct and public urination – emerged about the lacrosse team.

Defendants Blame Nifong in Players' Lawsuit

Meanwhile, in motions filed late Tuesday, the defendants named in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by three indicted and exonerated former lacrosse players ask that it be dismissed.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified punitive and compensatory damages, attorneys fees and numerous changes in how the Durham Police Department handles criminal investigations.

In the filings, Durham police officers and Mike Nifong's former investigator, Linwood Wilson, place blame on the former district attorney.

They argue they are entitled to qualified immunity from the lawsuit because they were under Nifong's direction and that he had "ultimate responsibility" for the way the case was handled and for the indictments.

"The independent decisions of the district attorney to charge the plaintiffs – and (of) the grand jury to indict them – fully insulate Sgt. (Mark) Gottlieb from any federal civil liability," according to the filing for Gottlieb, who was the lead investigator in the criminal case.

"Particularly when the amended complaint affirmatively alleges that Sgt. Gottlieb shared all material information with the district attorney," it goes on to say.

The motion from DNA Security Inc., the private laboratory that conducted the second round of DNA tests on samples collected from 46 lacrosse players, also places blame on Nifong.

DNA Security President Richard Clark said the lab should be immune because it worked as an expert witness for the prosecution.

The motion states the lab conducted accurate testing and orally provided complete results to Nifong, and it was up to him to make sure all relevant or exculpatory information reached defense attorneys.

"The law is clear that the decision about what evidence to provide to (the defense) and when to provide it was Nifong's alone to make," the motion states.

Attorneys for the city of Durham said Nifong acted alone and as an employee of the state, not the city. It requested a dismissal, saying the plaintiffs do not state a claim against them upon which relief can be granted.

"The central fact of this case is that the Plaintiffs cannot recover against Mr. Nifong's employer – the State of North Carolina – because it has absolute immunity," the filing states. "As a result, Plaintiffs have resorted to overreaching conspiracy claims and other novel legal theories that attempt to impose legal liability on the City of Durham, Durham police officers and City administrators for the actions of an overzealous prosecutor.

"All this creativity is in aid of an effort to impose on Durham taxpayers untold millions of dollars in damages for Plaintiffs who were publicly exonerated and never spent a moment in jail."

Nifong, who's response to the lawsuit was also due Tuesday, filed for bankruptcy Tuesday, claiming a debt of $180.3 million.

He listed liabilities of $30 million each for the three indicted players and a potential of $30 million each for three unindicted players who filed a federal lawsuit against Nifong and others last month.

21 Comments

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  • ridgerunner Jan 16, 2008

    Truth may be that nothing was done earlier is because the Lacrosse team was a winner and every one in authority at Duke was willing to overlook the wild parties. Look how fast the football coach hit the road, and his team was not causing any trouble. Just not winning.

  • Winston Jan 16, 2008

    foetine said "The Citizens of Durham need to just run Duke University out of the town."
    The tax collector told me to tell you, "Hush".

  • claudnc Jan 16, 2008

    You folks think the bus driver is milking the system... All of these guys are milking the system ie...Duke, Nifong, Durham PD for everything its worth. Does anyone remember the case of the central park jogger - the guys ended up being completely innocent and they served time in prison for years. They were teens when convicted and went to prison and since DNA exonerated them & no compensation whatsoever. Do you realize how many folks are charged and convicted with crimes they didnt commit and no compensation. This is really way over the top now.

  • foetine Jan 16, 2008

    The reason the lawsuit has been filed after the settlement is because Duke broke part of the settlement for opening up their mouths when they were supposed to keep their collective yap shut. But Duke has so much cash, they can talk all day and hit the cash machine at night.

    It is disgusting that the one guy who was railroaded into spending years behind bars and was abused for all those years gets peanuts compared to what all these Lacrosse players will be collecting. They're never going to have to put their degrees to work - outside of managing their millions that they've already pulled from Duke and their "anti-White males" professors. Now the city is going to end up paying a fortune that could have gone to educating the children of Durham.

    The Citizens of Durham need to just run Duke University out of the town.

  • giffman Jan 16, 2008

    It blows my mind how much money is changing hands over this case.

  • TarheelTurtle Jan 16, 2008

    Duke did throw Coach Pressler to the sharks. Burness, Alleva, Broadhead all knew about previous problems, yet did nothing. The coach DID discipline when HE WAS AWARE OF THE PROBLEM. My understanding is that Burness, correct me if I'm wrong, knew and never told Coach, choosing instead to sweep earlier run-ins with the law under the rug.
    Perhaps the reason Dankowski is "night and day" different than Pressler is that the rein is tighter from Broadhead on down. Does anyone really think those boys want to go through that lynch-mob mentality again?

  • IzzMad2016 Jan 16, 2008

    Thank you mtr -- I didn't read the article closely. Thanks for getting me up to speed!

  • Libandproud Jan 16, 2008

    I hope everyone associated with this travesty are penalized to the maximum extent. Maybe next time people will be a little less likely to engage in unfounded character assassination.

  • LuvLivingInCary Jan 16, 2008

    i hope mike takes as much as he can from the university.

  • wbearp Jan 16, 2008

    The price of gas just went up another 2 cents...let's blame Nifong!

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