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Ethics Charges Against Nifong Stand

Friday, April 13, 2007

A disciplinary committee rejected a request Friday to dismiss ethics charges against the former prosecutor in the dismissed Duke lacrosse case, who is accused of withholding critical DNA evidence from the defense.

The decision by the three-member panel came shortly after an hourlong hearing, at which committee chairman F. Lane Williamson repeatedly challenged the arguments made by attorneys for Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong.

The North Carolina State Bar has accused Nifong with breaking several rules of professional conduct as he led the investigation into allegations three lacrosse players raped a stripper at a team party in March 2006.

This week, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper dismissed all charges in the case, and said the three players indicted were innocent and that his investigators concluded no attack occurred. In doing so, he portrayed Nifong as a "rogue" prosecutor who rushed the case by failing to verify the accuser's allegations.

"I don't want to make comments outside the courtroom," Nifong said after the Friday's hearing, surrounded by a swarm of reporters who followed him down the street. "You'll have an opportunity to hear things I have to say inside the courtroom."

The scene drew several gawkers and a heckler, Lee Churchill of Raleigh, who carried a sign that called Nifong a "rapist of justice."

"The whole world is watching!" Churchill shouted. "Disbar!"

In January, after Nifong had turned the case over to Cooper's office, the bar accused the veteran prosecutor of failing to give the defense DNA test results that found genetic material from several men on the accuser's underwear and body, but none from any lacrosse player.

Nifong's attorneys denied he intentionally withheld the DNA evidence, saying he provided the defense with a report outlining test results months before a potential trial and gave notice the lab director would be called as an expert witness.

That shouldn't matter, said bar counsel Katherine Jean, because Nifong knew about the test results before he even won indictments against the three players. It's possible, she said, that with less capable defense counsel they might have chosen to enter into a plea agreement, which is how the vast majority of criminal cases in North Carolina are resolved.

"It's scary when you think about a case like this case," Jean said. "These men might have pleaded guilty never knowing the DNA evidence was exculpatory. ... It's a scary concept."

The bar has also charged Nifong with lying to the court and to bar investigators, and for making misleading and inflammatory comments about the athletes under suspicion. Those issues were not addressed at Friday's hearing.

Nifong, who apologized to the three cleared players in a statement issued Thursday, could be disbarred if convicted. His ethics trial is scheduled to start in June.

There have been calls for Nifong to resign, but his attorney David Freedman said the veteran prosecutor has no intention of leaving office.

Brad Bannon, an attorney who represented one of the three players, said the men's families "want to see Mr. Nifong get what they believe he was ready to deny their sons, which is a fair hearing."

Also Friday, a defense attorney retrieved the $100,000 bond posted by each of the former defendants, said Jermaine Patterson, head bookkeeper with the Durham County Clerk's Office. The players were originally released on $400,000 bond, though a judge reduced the amount to $100,000 for each player last June.

(Copyright ©2014 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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