Special Prosecutor in Duke Lacrosse Sex-Abuse Case Has Ties to Nifong

One of the special prosecutors reviewing the Duke lacrosse sex offense case previously worked alongside Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong, who requested last week to be recused from the high-profile case.

Mary Winstead, a special deputy attorney in the state Attorney General's Office, is one of two prosecutors assigned to review the case against three lacrosse players. Winstead worked with Nifong for several years in the 1980s and early 1990s when both served as assistant prosecutors in Durham.

Responding to Nifong's request for a special prosecutor, state Attorney General Roy Cooper appointed Winstead and Senior Deputy Attorney General James Coman to the case Saturday.

Some lawyers said that a former Nifong colleague was an unusual choice to help prosecute the case against three Duke lacrosse players — especially considering that Nifong's handling of the case has become a flash point.

"She may not be investigating Mike, but she's investigating Mike's work," said attorney Alex Charns, who represents an unindicted Duke lacrosse player. "(Nifong's) conduct is part and parcel of this prosecution. There's no way to untangle that."

Nifong handed over thousands of pages of information to the state Attorney General's Office on Tuesday. Cooper has said the special prosecutors in his office would review the files and interview witnesses in the case, including the accuser, before making a recommendation on how to proceed.

"We have complete confidence in our special prosecution attorneys," said Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for the attorney general's office.

The three players — Dave Evans, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann — are accused of attacking an exotic dancer who was hired to perform at a team party in March.

Nifong dropped rape charges against the players last month after the woman wavered on some key details, but the men still face sexual offense and kidnapping charges.

Meanwhile, Nifong faces charges of his own. The North Carolina State Bar has filed ethics charges against Nifong for making misleading and inflammatory comments about the lacrosse team early in the case.

Also Tuesday, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Justice said a North Carolina congressman has been told that it's too early to launch a federal investigation into the handling of the Duke lacrosse case.

Republican Rep. Walter Jones wrote U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales last month, asking that Gonzales's office investigate whether Nifong violated the civil rights of the accused lacrosse players.

Cynthia J. Magnuson, a Department of Justice spokeswoman, said Tuesday that Gonzales's Office of Legislative Affairs responded last week that it was premature to initiate a federal investigation while criminal charges and other investigations at the state level are ongoing.

Jones' spokeswoman, Kathleen Joyce, said Tuesday that the congressman still planned to meet next week with the head of the department's Civil Rights Division.

"He doesn't consider the letter received as a final response," Joyce said. "He's still pushing forward."