DURHAM, N.C. — Public perception surrounding Mike Nifong's prosecuting three former Duke lacrosse players took its toll on staff over the last year and a half in the Durham County District Attorney's Office, the district's top prosecutor said Thursday.
"Even though we may have had nothing to do with that case, (they'd think), 'Oh, you're absolutely evil because you're connected with that case,'" said David Saacks, who took the helm last Friday after Gov. Mike Easley appointed him to fill the district attorney post vacated by Nifong.
"The truth always – always – is somewhere in between," he continued. "It's never one extreme or the other. Obviously, as human beings, if you understand that public perception is out there, it can wear on you."
But in some ways, he said, the scrutiny made it easier for him and other prosecutors do their jobs.
"Our solution," he said, "(was) put your head down, do your job, do your cases, do it the best that you can. That's all you can do. That's all anyone's asking you to do, and you'll be fine."
Nifong worked on the lacrosse case while the other prosecutors in the office worked on other cases, Saacks said.
"Mike was very good at keeping that case and understanding that, if he involved the rest of the office with that case, we probably weren't going to get the rest of the cases done," he said.
Saacks, who testified two weeks ago at Nifong's criminal contempt hearing as a fact witness, did prepare a non-testimonial order to send DNA samples from 46 lacrosse players to a private analysis lab in Burlington, but that was the extent of his involvement, he said.
"But actually called in to discuss or to advise about the case? No, that's not Mike to start with," he said. "That wasn't my role."
Saacks said he was initially surprised by Nifong's handling of the lacrosse case, but it finally got to a point where "nothing else was surprising us."
"I'm not quite sure when that was, but there was a point that came up, where you just said, 'Oh, what else? It's just another thing,'" he said. "But when it first started, it was certainly surprising."
And as for his former boss, Saacks called Nifong's actions disappointing and "very sad."
"I've known him for 15 years, as long as I've been here. He was the one, when I started here – he was the one that brought me into the court to have me sworn in as a lawyer and as an assistant DA," Saacks said. "It was very sad, personally, for me."
"I think he made some mistakes. I think he admitted he made some mistakes," Saacks said later. "I don't think he's as bad as people are saying. I don't think he's as great as maybe other people are saying. The truth usually lies somewhere in between."
Nifong dropped rape charges against the three defendants last December, and in January, he asked North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper to appoint a special prosecutor to handle it. Cooper dismissed the case in April.
Now that it is out of the Durham District Attorney's Office's jurisdiction, Saacks said his goal is to keep the office running as smoothly and efficiently as possible until the people of Durham County can elect a new district attorney next year.
"I'm not coming in planning on changing much because, even though I may have the authority, now, I don't think I have the moral backing, really, to do that," he said. "I'm only here for a year. I'm not here to make wholesale changes or to move things around. I want to keep us kind of going the same way we're going to get us to the election."
Saacks, who hasn't moved into the district attorney's private office at the Durham County Courthouse, has said many times since last week that he has no intention to seek election next year.
Yet, less than a week on the job, he has found himself mired in controversy as questions surface about the legality of his appointment.
Recent legislation requires officials appointed to local offices to live in their respective county. Saacks lives in Wake County. But Gov. Mike Easley maintains his power under the North Carolina constitution trumps any legislation.
"I'm really caught in the middle, just like everyone else is," he said. "They either tell me I can or can't."
He'd rather focus on the cases, he said, and on keeping the office as transparent as possible.
"We're not trying to hide anything," he said. "The only thing we want to do is do our jobs to the best of our ability. And if someone feels like they need to hide something, or not be transparent in doing that job, I don't think that's the best way to do that job, so I would probably have to deal with that."