Published June 16, 2007
Choking back tears on the witness stand, Durham, N.C., District Attorney Mike Nifong announced his resignation Friday after testifying about missteps he made in the Duke lacrosse rape case.
The embattled prosecutor, testifying at his own ethics trial in Raleigh, N.C., said he made mistakes in the prosecution of three Duke lacrosse players — Reade Seligmann, Dave Evans and Collin Finnerty — after an exotic dancer claimed they raped her at an off-campus party on March 13, 2006. However, he maintained he never lied to the state bar association over any facts of the case.
"To the extent my actions have caused pain to the Finnertys and the Seligmanns and the Evanses, I apologize. To the extent that my actions have brought disrespect or disrepute to the bar, to my community, I apologize," Nifong said.
"But I cannot admit to telling a lie I didn’t tell, and I’ll continue to defend myself against those allegations."
Seligmann, Evans and Finnerty were declared innocent of the charges earlier this year by the state attorney general, who said they had been prosecuted by a "rogue" DA.
The state bar has charged Nifong with violating several state rules governing professional conduct, including: an allegation he withheld critical DNA test results from defense attorneys representing the players charged; lying to both the court and bar investigators; and making misleading and inflammatory comments about the three indicted athletes.
Nifong could be disbarred if he's found guilty.
"I have always tried to do the right thing. In this case, I was trying to do the right thing," Nifong said at the end of his testimony. "Much of the criticism against me was justified. The allegations, however, that I’m a liar, are not justified ... any misrepresentations I made in this case were unintentional."
Noting that his wife and son, among other supporters, were in the courtroom, Nifong said he could not see how it was possible to continue to "further the cause of justice" in Durham as a prosecutor.
"It is not fair for the people in my community to be represented by someone who is not held in high esteem by you, the members of the community, the members of the profession," Nifong said. "Every time I walk into the courtroom, people are going to be pointing the finger at me.
"I will go to my grave being associated with this case and that’s OK. I have no problem with that," he continued. "Whatever mistakes I made in this case are my mistakes. They’re not all the ones the bar says I made but they are my mistakes."
Nifong earlier admitted it might have been helpful for him to personally interview the accuser, Crystal Gail Mangum, before he charged the lacrosse players with rape. He didn't meet with her until months after the indictments.
"In retrospect, that would have been a good idea. I’m not sure it would have resolved the issues, specifically, in this case," Nifong said. "At the time we made that decision, all the people who had spoken to Ms. Mangum were convinced she was speaking the truth."
With the exception of one investigator who had his doubts about her story, "there were no questions presented to me by anyone in this case … [about] the allegations of sexual assault," Nifong said. He added that all he needed to get a conviction in a rape case was a credible witness.
But Mangum's credibility weakened as the case went on. After the three players were indicted, she said she could not be sure if she had been raped or what she was assaulted with. Furthermore, DNA from the players was not found in her rape exam. Nifong dropped the rape charges in December, but he continued to pursue sexual assault and kidnapping charges.
Asked why he didn't just drop the remaining charges due to a lack of evidence, Nifong said: "I didn’t think that necessarily meant the charges couldn’t be heard."
But as the case continued, he said, "additional problems" with her story popped up.
Nifong also said he "maybe got carried away a little bit" in talking about the case he prosecuted and acknowledged that the players' attorneys should have been given DNA evidence in his possession.
Nifong recused himself from the case before the three players were cleared by state Attorney General Roy Cooper, who concluded they were "innocent" victims of a rogue prosecutor's "tragic rush to accuse."
Defense lawyers say DNA results could have exonerated their clients early on, and that even though Nifong had them all summer in 2006, he did not deliver to them to the defense until that fall.
"I want to make it clear right now that is certainly evidence the defense attorneys would like to have," Nifong said Friday. "Whether we feel it is exculpatory or not, I'm not denying they were entitled to have that evidence."
Seligmann testified earlier Friday that he always thought DNA tests would prove his innocence. Mangum claimed her attackers were white, and all 46 white players on the team submitted DNA samples; the 47th player, who was black, did not.
"I never thought in a million years I would ever be a suspect … I wasn’t even listed as having been at the party. In my mind, it couldn’t be me, I left the party," Seligmann testified on Friday.
Nifong gave defense attorneys an initial report on the DNA testing in May 2006. A private lab, DNA Security Inc., had been unable to find a conclusive match between the accuser and any lacrosse players. Nifong testified Friday that he "believed at the time that I had given them everything."
But that wasn't everything. Defense attorneys have testified it wasn't until Oct. 27 that Nifong finally gave the defense the raw test data from DNA Security Inc. — months after their clients were indicted.
Lab director Brian Meehan testified Wednesday that he gave Nifong the full DNA report that May, and specifically highlighted the fact that genetic material from several males — none of whom were on the lacrosse team — had been found on the accuser, as early as April 10, 2006. That was a week before indictments were handed down against Seligmann and Finnerty.
"I really just didn't notice that it wasn't there," Nifong said when asked why the initial report didn't include the full results, adding that he didn't even look at the report between May and December 2006.
Nifong said he first realized the additional DNA information was missing when he was served with a motion for additional discovery on Dec. 13.
"My first reaction was a variation of 'oh crap,' in terms of I looked at that and said, 'I didn't give them this?"' Nifong said. "And then I went back and looked at the report from DNA Security and I read over it, and the information clearly was not there in a direct form."
The prosecutor has come under heavy fire for making negative and sometimes misleading statements about the players before the indictments. Those included calling them a "bunch of hooligans" and confidently proclaiming he wouldn't allow Durham to become known for "a bunch of lacrosse players from Duke raping a black girl."
"I think clearly some of the statements I made were improper," Nifong said. "The comment about race was not a comment that should have been made."
As the case dragged on and more evidence surfaced casting doubt on Mangum's story, the public heard less from Nifong.
"I wanted to let the public know a couple things," Nifong said when asked why he talked to the media so much about the case early on. "One was, the case was one being looked at very carefully by someone who would take the community to heart," he said, and second, "I wanted people to come forward."
But after about a month went by and no one did, he said, he stopped giving as many interviews.
"It was not my intention to do anything but get the case resolved quickly and to get somebody to not do anything rash based on assumptions of what might have happened," he added.
Nifong also has been criticized for showing Mangum pictures only of lacrosse players as she tried to identify her alleged attackers. Nifong said she was in a room with bad lighting and could never say for certain who attacked her.
"My recollection is, a majority of the pictures she saw she did not recognize," Nifong said, but Mangum "showed some emotional response" to a picture of Finnerty, and indicated Evans looked like the person who assaulted her, except the man she described had a mustache; Evans does not have facial hair.
"She indicated that the person she believed him to be would have been the person who grabbed her from behind and the one she would have struggled with when she broke her fingernails off," Nifong said. "She was only able to say with 90 percent degree certainty he was one of her assailants."
But Mangum seemed "very believable" to the officers in the room during the lineup, Nifong said.
Despite Mangum's doubts about the photos, Nifong said the indictments against Finnerty and Seligmann were handed down based solely on her identification.
But he insisted he wasn't targeting the lacrosse players, but investigators knew it was mostly team players who were at the house the night of the alleged attack.
"I looked at the lacrosse team as the universe which may or may not contain a suspect," Nifong said.
Nifong also said he realized there were missed opportunities along the way where officials could have collected better evidence of the alleged attack, including how Mangum never mentioned being raped until hours after she was found inebriated by a police officer in a parking lot.
"There were a lot of things that, had we gotten them earlier," could have helped his case, Nifong said.
But, he said, "there were findings, both physical findings and, I guess, emotional state findings that were consistent with the story of sexual assault."
Seligmann: Accusations 'Turned Our World Upside Down'
Earlier in the proceedings, Seligmann broke down in tears as he testified how the rape accusations by Mangum and Nifong had forever changed his life.
On the day he was told the accuser had named him as one of her attackers, Seligmann said, "my dad just fell to the floor and I just sat on the ground and said ‘my life is over.'"
Seligmann was called as the prosecution's final witness on day three of Nifong's ethics trial. "The world felt like it was spinning," the former Duke student said as he recounted events leading up to his indictment.
When Seligmann told his mother on the phone, he said, 'Mom, she picked me.' The life was sucked right out of her," he testified as his mother sobbed in the audience.
Seligmann said "Wanted" posters of the indicted players were placed around campus, and he said members of the black community whom he considered friends suddenly gave him the cold shoulder.
"A person you know on a first-name basis, and she wouldn’t look you in the eye. You just stop going. You have to change your life on campus. It was something we just sort of had to deal with," Seligmann said.
"It really turned our world upside down. We had always been really respected on campus and we had a lot of friends on campus. We all got along with our teachers really well," Seligmann testified. But after the accusations of rape surfaced from an exotic dancer, "everyone looked at you differently," he said.
Seligmann said he was confounded when he tried to provide Nifong with receipts and other information proving that he wasn't even at the house where the alleged rape took place at the time the accuser said it occurred.
He also said he provided his DNA because he and his teammates believed it would be the quickest way to clear their names.
"I was more than happy to give DNA," Seligmann said. And when those tests failed to show that any of those players assaulted the stripper, "I thought at this point, this is going to be over, this is absolutely OK, we’re going to be fine," he said.
But Nifong still pressed ahead with the case and sought indictments against Seligmann, Finnerty and Evans.
"It’s just a lonely, helpless feeling. There was nothing we could do," Seligmann said. "We went from being viewed as athletes to being viewed as rapists."
Even when the rape charges were dropped in December after Mangum changed her story several times, there were no DNA tests proving any attack happened and several other DNA samples from men who were not on the lacrosse team were found on the woman, Nifong still pursued sexual assault and kidnapping charges against the three.
"We continued to live this life with a cloud hanging over our head," Seligmann said. "We always felt that way, but at that point, it sort of felt like a sick joke, like we were being toyed with. Like he [Nifong] was doing this maliciously to us."