Local News

In N.C. Primaries, Durham DA's Race Draws All The Attention

Posted May 2, 2006 6:49 a.m. EDT

— District Attorney Mike Nifong stood for election for the first time Tuesday, as voters weighed his investigation of rape accusations involving members of Duke University's lacrosse team against his nearly 30 years' experience as a Durham County prosecutor.

Nifong, 55, has been at the center of the media storm surrounding the rape allegations made by a black 27-year-old North Carolina Central University student, who told police she was raped and beaten by three white men at the March 13 party thrown by Duke's lacrosse team.

Every move Nifong has made in the case has either been celebrated or criticized in front of a national audience.

"I wouldn't be indicting people if I didn't think I had a solid case," said Nifong said on Tuesday.

Last month, a grand jury indicted sophomore lacrosse players Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty on charges of rape, kidnapping and sexual assault. An exotic dancer told police she was attacked by three men, and Nifong has said he hopes to charge a third person.

"I don't think he did his job," said Antonia Weeks, a writer who's lived in Durham for 29 years. She voted for Freda Black, one of two challengers running against Nifong in the Democratic primary.

"I don't know who did what and I'm not pretending to know," she added. "But I've seen a lot of cases handled in this community and I've never seen one handled this way before."

Others in Durham said it was unfair to judge Nifong on just one case, even if it has drawn intense media scrutiny to Durham and Duke University, by far the largest employer in the county.

"I was concerned at first that he was politicizing it," said Sue Jarrell, who works at Duke as a business analyst and voted for Nifong. "But I realized that no matter who was the district attorney, when something like this occurred, it would be highly political and highly volatile."

If Tuesday's voter turnout is in Nifong's favor, it will show strong support for his way of handling the case, despite opponents' criticisms that he spoke too soon and too publicly about key facts in the investigation. Defense attorneys representing the players have also criticized Nifong saying he is pushing the investigation forward for political gain.

Nifong was appointed district attorney last year after Jim Hardin was named to a Superior Court judgeship. He initially talked openly about his investigation, at one point labeling some players "hooligans" and boldly predicting DNA test results would identify the guilty. Those tests failed to find a match between the accuser and any player tested, according to defense attorneys.

The early comments drew fire from Black, 45, a former assistant prosecutor in Durham, and Keith Bishop, 43, a lawyer in private practice also seeking the job in Tuesday's primary.

"I'm so glad this day has finally come," said Black, who helped win a 2003 first-degree murder conviction of Durham novelist and former mayoral candidate Michael Peterson. "I've been anticipating it for quite some time, and I'm just so happy that May 2 is here."

The winner of Tuesday's primary vote will likely be the next district attorney since no Republicans are running. If no candidate wins at least 40 percent of the vote, the top two will advance to a May 30 runoff.

Even if Nifong loses, he will remain in office until January, allowing him to keep pursuing his case against two indicted players. He has said he does not intend to step down early if he loses.

The national attention surrounding the investigation, now in its sixth week, could mean some of the highest voter turnout in recent history. The highest in a district attorney race in the last 15 years was 27 percent in 2002.