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Lacrosse Investigation Comes Amidst District Attorney Election Run

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DURHAM, N.C. — Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong has found himself in the middle of a frustrated, divided community.

Some people believe he moved too quickly and unfairly tarnished Duke University's men's lacrosse team. Others are angry that no one has been arrested in connection with allegations that an exotic dancer was raped and beaten at a party on March 13.

The case could be the deciding factor in this May's election race for Durham County's next district attorney.

Nifong was appointed district attorney in April 2005 by Gov. Mike Easley after District Attorney Jim Hardin was appointed to a Superior Court judgeship.

With the election just three weeks away, some defense attorneys have suggested that District Attorney Mike Nifong's vocal and prominent stance on the case is more for political gain rather than to see justice served.

"He has to be very careful. He has to walk a tight rope," said Durham attorney Drew Marsh, who believes Nifong's handling of the Duke lacrosse rape case could make or break his run for political office.

"It could very well be a referendum on him because this is some indication on how he will perform his job," Marsh said.

One opponent, former Assistant District Attorney Freda Black, hasn't made the rape case a campaign issue. Candidate Keith Bishop, however, is quick to criticize Nifong for how he has handled the case.

"This reflects clearly on Mr. Nifong's competence," Bishop said. "He jumped the gun on a case and went out and made some inflammatory statements."

In an ironic mix of professional and personal opinion, several attorneys battling Nifong in this case support him for district attorney. Butch Williams is in a Nifong campaign ad; Kerry Sutton has a Nifong sign in her yard; and Bill Thomas is a close friend.

"I have supported him in this campaign," Thomas said. "Throughout our careers, we have strongly disagreed on cases. I don't think we've ever disagreed this much."

Although Nifong balances the Duke lacrosse case with his run for office, his opponents also have baggage: Bishop has been censured by the North Carolina Bar for misconduct, and Black is dealing with allegations that she reneged on a plea deal.

The three candidates face each other in a forum Wednesday evening.


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