"I think that I have a responsibility to prosecute this case," Mike Nifong told The Associated Press on Monday. "I think that really nothing about my view of the case and my view of how the case ultimately needs to be handled has been affected by any of the things that have occurred."
Nifong, running for election against two challengers who have attacked his handling of the case, obtained an indictment against three lacrosse players accused of raping a stripper at a team party in March. David Evans, Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty have strongly declared their innocence.
The 56-year-old Nifong, who has worked for Durham County's district attorney's office since 1978, thrust himself into the story in the days after the accusations became public, granting numerous newspaper and TV interviews as he prepared to face two challengers in May's Democratic primary -- an election he won.
His tone was decidedly aggressive, as Nifong called the players "hooligans" used to having "expensive lawyers" get them out of trouble. He denounced what he called a "blue wall of silence" that had supposedly formed around the perpetrators.
"I think it was pretty clear that I (misunderstood) the likely consequence of appearing on camera," Nifong said. "What I was trying to do was to reassure the community, to encourage people with information to come forward. And that was clearly not the effect."
After that initial flurry of interviews, Nifong generally stopped talking publicly about the case, referring reporters to his courtroom comments. But in Monday's interview about the upcoming general election, Nifong defended his handling of a case that divided a community and led to a debate about race, class and sex, as well as the culture of privilege for athletes at Duke, a prestigious private university.
"My personal feeling is the first step to addressing those divisions is addressing this case," Nifong said. "That is not the kind of thing that you can really assign to somebody else and say, 'You go do this for me. The future of Durham's in the balance and I don't really want to get my hands dirty. You do it.'"
Nifong said granting so many interviews was his only regret, insisting that he and police investigators have not mishandled the case.
"Could I have done things differently? Of course I could've done things differently," he said. "Can I do things differently in the future? Of course I can do things differently in the future. But at any time, I've got to do what I think is the right thing to do."
Nifong's apparent indifference to the criticism angered defense attorney Joseph Cheshire, who represents Evans. Cheshire said Nifong's belief he "wouldn't look back and do any of that differently is astounding."
"I don't think that you could find any person educated in the law who would not second-guess many things that Mr. Nifong has done in this case," he said.
Nifong critics garnered enough support to put Durham County Commissioner Lewis Cheek's name on the November ballot to offer opposition in the district attorney's race. Cheek has said he won't accept the job if elected.
The effort to defeat Nifong has raised $14,500 to date, according to an election finance report. Fifty-three of the 55 donations are from outside of North Carolina.
Meanwhile, Nifong has raised more than $78,000 for his campaign, while write-in candidate Steve Monks has raised $20,000, according to filings.
The latest questions about Nifong's handling of the case came last week, after he said he and his staff have yet to interview the accuser about the facts of the case, leaving that work to police. He said Monday his responsibility is to direct the investigation, not conduct it.
"I've been prosecuting cases for 28 years, and nobody has ever asked me questions about my policies in terms of when I have normally interviewed witnesses," he said. "But all of a sudden, everybody has an opinion about when I should interview witnesses in this case."
Experts differed on the wisdom of Nifong's decision. Former Denver prosecutor Norm Early, who now works with the National District Attorneys Association, said his office would file more than 4,000 cases a year and that he would only interview a handful of victims.
"It's not standard to talk to the victim in every case," he said. "The police department generally has a conversation with the victim, and the law enforcement relays that information to the district attorney."
But for a case generating as much public scrutiny and with such strong claims of innocence from the defense, it makes sense for prosecutors to get involved, said Yale University law professor Ronald Sullivan Jr.
"Those claims of factual innocence alone should trigger some duty in the prosecutor's office to evaluate the merits of this case," he said.
Nifong declined to comment on an interview aired by ABC on Monday with Kim Roberts, a second stripper at the party. Roberts said the accuser was clearly impaired and "talking crazy" after they left the party and drove to a grocery store.
Roberts said she was unable to get the accuser to leave her car, and pushed on the woman's arm and leg to try to force her out. Roberts quoted the accuser as saying: "Go ahead, go ahead. Put marks on me. Go ahead. That's what I want. Go ahead."
"And it chilled me to the bone," Roberts said.
Nifong said he occasionally receives pieces of hate mail -- "Some of it is, 'How can you sleep at night? You're a disgrace,'" he said -- but he said most people he has met while campaigning have been supportive. He said he's received letters of support from rape victims, which he said have meant the most.
"As a practical reality, almost anything the district attorney decides is going to make some people unhappy," he said. "It's not a position that you can afford to be terribly thin-skinned about because you have to understand that it's part of the job. You're not there to please people in the first place."
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