Ethics charges filed against the prosecutor at the center of the Duke lacrosse sexual assault case might constitute a conflict of interest that forces him off the sensational case in which a black woman claimed she was reaped by three white college students, legal experts said.
"It's hard for me to imagine how he can be effective as an advocate, with either the court or a future jury, when he has ethics charges pending against him ... concerning his conduct of this very same case," said Joseph Kennedy, a University of North Carolina law professor.
The North Carolina bar filed the ethics charges Thursday, accusing District Attorney Mike Nifong of violating four rules of professional conduct by making misleading and inflammatory comments about the athletes under suspicion.
Kennedy said Nifong should recuse himself, but added that the judge overseeing the case could order his removal from the case. The ethics charges carry penalties that range from admonishment to removal from the bar, the equivalent of losing his license to practice law.
The bar said it had opened a case against Nifong on March 30, a little more than two weeks after a 28-year-old woman hired to perform as a stripper at a lacrosse team party said she was gang-raped.
The ethics charges will be heard by the state's Disciplinary Hearing Commission, made up of lawyers and non-lawyers, at a forum similar to a trial. A date for the hearing has not been set.
"I'm not really into the irony of talking to reporters about allegations that I talked to reporters," Nifong said outside of his office Friday. He declined to answer any other questions.
In an October interview with The Associated Press, Nifong had said his only regret in handling the case was speaking so often to the media early in the investigation.
The bar cited 41 quotations and eight paraphrased statements made to newspaper and TV reporters, saying many of them amounted to "improper commentary about the character, credibility and reputation of the accused."
— Referring to the lacrosse players as "a bunch of hooligans."
— "I am convinced there was a rape, yes, sir."
— "One would wonder why one needs an attorney if one was not charged and had not done anything wrong."
Nifong also is charged with breaking a rule against "dishonesty, fraud, deceit and misrepresentation." The bar said that when DNA testing failed to find any evidence a lacrosse player raped the accuser, Nifong told a reporter the players might have used condoms.
According to the bar, Nifong knew that assertion was misleading, because he had received a report from an emergency room nurse in which the accuser said her attackers did not use condoms.
Last week, Nifong dropped the rape charges against the athletes after the stripper wavered in her story, saying she was no longer certain she was penetrated vaginally with a penis, as she had claimed several times before. The men still face charges of kidnapping and sexual offense.