Former Duke Lacrosse Prosecutor Disbarred
Posted June 16, 2007 9:53 a.m. EDT
Updated June 17, 2007 12:16 p.m. EDT
Raleigh, N.C. — Embattled prosecutor Mike Nifong said Saturday afternoon that he should be disbarred for his handling of the Duke lacrosse case for breaking 27 of 32 rules of professional conduct. ()
After five days of testimony from investigators, SBI agents, legal professionals and experts and cleared lacrosse players and their parents, the three-member North Carolina State Bar Disciplinary Hearing Commission agreed.
"This matter has been a fiasco," Chairman F. Lane Williamson said. "There's no doubt about it. It's been a fiasco for a number of people starting with the defendants and moving out from there, for the justice system in general." (Watch Williamson's talk about Nifong's disbarment.)
Nifong sat motionless, one hand resting over his mouth, as Williamson recounted how the district attorney engaged in dishonest and deceitful conduct. ()
He said Nifong's early comments about the case – which included a confident proclamation that he would not allow Durham to become known for "a bunch of lacrosse players from Duke raping a black girl" – were purposefully designed to boost his campaign for district attorney.
"At the time, he was facing a primary, and yes, he was politically naive," Williamson said. "But we can draw no other conclusion that those initial statements he made were to further his political ambitions."
Nifong will not appeal the punishment, his attorney, David Freedman, said.
"He hopes this helps restore some of the confidence in the criminal justice system of North Carolina," Freedman said. (Watch Freedman talk about Nifong's decision.)
"On one hand, it's very devastating. On the other hand, he's been going through this process for a long time, so you always have some semblance of relief when the process is over with regardless of the outcome."
The North Carolina State Bar charged Nifong, who announced on Friday he will resign from his post as district attorney, with making misleading and inflammatory comments about the lacrosse athletes, lying to both the court and State 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."
David Evans Sr., the father of exonerated player David Evans, testified during the second phase of the ethics trial about the stress he and his family were put under for more than a year as they waited not knowing what would happen and questions why Nifong pressed ahead with the case. (Watch Evans' entire testimony.)
"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," an angry Evans testified. "And then the word of the Attorney General of North Carolina says they didn't do it."
"We were in the fight of our life," Mary Ellen Finnerty testified about her family's life during that period.(Watch Finnerty's entire testimony.)
"Nobody can give any of the three families back the 14 months we have gone through," she said. "The emotional pain, the physical pain -- the fright of (lying) in bed at night and saying my son … could go to jail for 30 years for a crime (he) didn't commit. That was frightening."
During the ethics trial, Nifong acknowledged he knew there was no DNA evidence connecting Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty to the 28-year-old accuser when he indicted them on charges of rape, sexual offense and kidnapping. Nifong later charged Evans with the same crimes.
But months later, the North Carolina Attorney General's Office concluded the three players were "innocent" -- a fact Williamson hammered home on Saturday.
"We acknowledge the actual innocence of the defendants, and there's nothing here that has done anything but support that assertion," Williamson said.
Williamson said it appeared that throughout his investigation, Nifong was looking for any evidence to link a lacrosse player to the accuser's story to support his initial comments that he was sure an attack occurred.
"He's already out there," Williamson said. "He's way out there by then. He looks foolish if he does not go forward."
One of the most serious ethics violations Nifong was found to have committed involved his failure to turn over DNA test results that identified genetic material from several men -- but no members of the lacrosse team -- in the accuser's underwear and body.
In court documents and hearings in May, June and September, Nifong told two different judges that he had no more evidence that could be considered helpful to the defense. Nifong said he didn't realize the defense hadn't been given all the DNA test results until December -- a suggestion Williamson found laughable.
"He knew. He admits he knew," Williamson said during Nifong attorney Dudley Witt's closing argument. "How could he not know if he had read it? How could he not know?"
Witt admitted his client made "multiple, egregious mistakes." He insisted none were made intentionally, but struggled to offer another explanation. (Read more about closing statements in Nifong's ethics trial.)
"It didn't click," Witt said as he tried to explain away one of Nifong's errors. "His mind is just his mind. That's the way it works. It just didn't click."
Along with accusing Nifong of withholding the DNA evidence and making misleading and inflammatory comments about the three athletes, the North Carolina State Bar said he lied to both the court and bar investigators. The committee found Nifong broke the state's rules of professional conduct more than two dozen times.
"I would say there are no winners in this scenario," said Kevin Finnerty, Collin's father.
"With that said, I think there's closure. I think it's appropriate and I think it's justice.
"I think he brought it on himself."
The players' defense attorneys have pledged to seek criminal contempt charges next week in Durham from a judge who has already reminded Nifong he has the authority to impose punishment. They suggested the calls for a federal civil rights investigation were not out of line. (Watch the attorneys talk about what's next for Nifong.).
"I don't think any of us are done with Mr. Nifong yet," said Jim Cooney, Seligmann's attorney.
Nifong declined to comment Saturday while he and his wife quietly slipped out of the courthouse through a side door. (Watch Nifong leave.)