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Durham's Acting DA: Office's Image Is Biggest Hurdle

Nearly two months after Mike Nifong was suspended from office, interim Durham district attorney Jim Hardin says the biggest issue the office faces is public perception.

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DURHAM, N.C. — The public automatically associates Mike Nifong and his handling of the Duke lacrosse case with the district attorney's office – and that perception is the biggest issue with the office, Durham's interim head prosecutor said Tuesday.

"We've had to deal with it in a couple of cases when we were selecting juries," former Superior Court Judge Jim Hardin said. "I mean, it's on everyone's mind. It still is, to some degree."

But having reviewed policies and cases in which the toppled prosecutor was involved, Hardin said he has been pleased with what he has seen in the two months since Gov. Mike Easley appointed him to "take stock of the office, the personnel and its practices."

That decision came one day after Nifong was suspended from office following the North Carolina State Bar's disciplinary panel's decision to disbar him for violating ethics rules in his handling of the rape, sexual assault and kidnapping case against former Duke lacrosse players David Evans, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann.

"I believe we're on the right side of the trend," Hardin said, admitting that changing the public's perception hasn't been easy.

For example, he said he postponed a plea deal in a murder case after the victim's family raised concerns and mentioned Nifong's name in a letter.

"It did cause me to reflect on the case, step back and make sure we're doing things right," Hardin said.

But Durham defense attorney Bill Thomas said getting Nifong out of office has relieved a lot of concerns for attorneys.

"We have no concerns about the conduct of the office," he said. "We all wonder who the next DA is going to be."

Easley is now searching for Nifong's permanent replacement to serve out the term, which ends in 2008.

The Office of the Governor said Tuesday that Easley has been talking with candidates but said there is no definite timeframe on filling the position.

A 20-year veteran of the Durham District Attorney's Office, Hardin served 11 of those years as district attorney, gaining notoriety in 2003 for successfully prosecuting the high-profile murder trial of former Durham mayoral candidate and novelist Michael Peterson.

In April 2005, Easley appointed Hardin to a Superior Court judgeship. It was then that Hardin suggested Nifong, based on his experience and reputation, as a candidate for the position.

"Looking at it from that perspective, it was the right thing," Hardin said. "But, if I had to do it over again, I might've done things differently."


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