Published June 16, 2007
RALEIGH, N.C. – Mike Nifong broke numerous rules of professional conduct during his disastrous prosecution of three Duke University lacrosse players falsely accused of rape, committing "deceit and misrepresentations," a disciplinary committee ruled Saturday.
The committee must now decide if the longtime prosecutor in Durham County, who has already pledged to resign his post as district attorney, should be stripped of his law license. That decision was expected later Saturday.
The North Carolina State Bar charged Nifong with breaking several rules of professional conduct, including lying to both the court and bar investigators and withholding critical DNA test results from the players' defense attorneys.
The committee, after deliberating for a little more than an hour, unanimously agreed with the bar on almost every charge — including the most serious allegations — that Nifong's actions involved "dishonesty, fraud, deceit and misrepresentation."
State Bar prosecutor Douglas Brocker told the committee that as Nifong investigated the allegations that a stripper was raped and beaten at a March 2006 party thrown by Duke's lacrosse team, he charged "forward toward condemnation and injustice," weaving a "web of deception that has continued up through this hearing."
"Mr. Nifong did not act as a minister of justice, but as a minister of injustice," Brocker said.
The verdicts did not appear to surprise Nifong, who acknowledged during sometimes tearful testimony Friday that he would likely be punished for getting "carried away a little bit" when talking about the case.
Disciplinary committee chairman F. Lane Williamson also hinted during Saturday's closing arguments the three-member panel was likely to conclude that Nifong kept from the defense DNA test results that found genetic material from several men in the accuser's underwear and body, but none from any lacrosse player.
"How can you possibly explain that away?" said Williamson, who repeatedly interrupted Nifong's attorney, Dudley Witt, as he discussed the DNA testing during his closing statement.
"It wasn't just one little oversight," Williamson said later. "This was conduct over an extended period in a very high-profile case."
Aware of those test results, Nifong pressed ahead with the case anyway and won indictments against Dave Evans, Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty. State prosecutors later concluded the three players were "innocent" victims of a rogue prosecutor's "tragic rush to accuse."
Nifong made "multiple, egregious mistakes" as he pursued the charges, but not intentionally, his attorney said in closing statements.
"It didn't click," Witt said as he tried to explain one of his client's errors. "His mind is just his mind. That's the way it works. It just didn't click."
Brocker said Nifong had to have known he was making improper comments to reporters. Nifong said he regretted some of his statements, including a confident proclamation that he wouldn't allow Durham to become known for "a bunch of lacrosse players from Duke raping a black girl."
He also focused on when Nifong learned about the full extent of the DNA test results and when he shared that information with the defense.
Nifong gave defense attorneys an initial report on the DNA testing in May 2006 that said private lab DNA Security Inc. had been unable to find a conclusive match between the accuser and any lacrosse players.
But lab director Brian Meehan testified this week that he told Nifong as early as April 10, 2006 — a week before Seligmann and Finnerty were indicted — about the more detailed test results.
Nifong testified that when he gave the defense the initial report, he "believed at the time that I had given them everything."
The disciplinary hearing committee could suspend Nifong's law license or take it away entirely.
Nifong told the panel hearing the case Friday that he would resign from his post as Durham County district attorney over his handling of the rape charges.
The players' attorneys have pledged to seek criminal contempt charges next week in Durham.