District Attorney Mike Nifong was disbarred Saturday for his "selfish" rape prosecution of three Duke University lacrosse players — a politically motivated act, his judges said, that he inexplicably allowed to fester for months after it was clear the defendants were innocent.
"This matter has been a fiasco. There's no doubt about it," said F. Lane Williamson, the chairman of the three-member disciplinary committee that stripped the veteran prosecutor of his state law license.
Even Nifong and his attorneys supported the decision, though the veteran prosecutor refused to admit to the end that no crime occurred at a March 2006 lacrosse team party.
The committee said Nifong manipulated the investigation to boost his chances of winning his first election for Durham County district attorney. In doing so, he committed "a clear case of intentional prosecutorial misconduct" that involved "dishonesty, fraud, deceit and misrepresentation."
Williamson specifically cited Nifong's comments in the early days of the case, which included a confident proclamation at a candidate forum that he wouldn't allow Durham to become known for "a bunch of lacrosse players from Duke raping a black girl." He also called the lacrosse team "a bunch of hooligans" at one point.
Appointed district attorney in 2005, Nifong was in a tight race for the office when a stripper told police she was raped at the party.
"At the time he was facing a primary, and yes, he was politically naive," Williamson said. "But we can draw no other conclusion that those initial statements he made were to further his political ambitions."
During the ethics trial, Nifong acknowledged he knew there was no DNA evidence connecting Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty to the 28-year-old accuser when he indicted them on charges of rape, sexual offense and kidnapping. Nifong later charged Dave Evans with the same crimes. But months later, state prosecutors concluded the three players were "innocent" — a fact Williamson hammered home on Saturday.
"We acknowledge the actual innocence of the defendants, and there's nothing here that has done anything but support that assertion," Williamson said.
Williamson said it appeared that throughout his investigation, Nifong was looking for any evidence to link a lacrosse player to the accuser's story in order to support his initial comments that he was sure an attack occurred.
"He's already out there," Williamson said. "He's way out there by then. He looks foolish if he does not go forward."
One of the most serious ethics violations Nifong was found to have committed involved his failure to turn over DNA test results that identified genetic material from several men — but no members of the lacrosse team — in the accuser's underwear and body.
In court documents and hearings in May, June and September, Nifong told two different judges that he had no more evidence that could be considered helpful to the defense. Nifong said he didn't realize the defense hadn't been given all the DNA test results until December — a suggestion Williamson found laughable.
"He knew. He admits he knew," Williamson said during Nifong attorney Dudley Witt's closing argument. "How could he not know if he had read it? How could he not know?"
Witt admitted his client made "multiple, egregious mistakes." He insisted none were made intentionally, but struggled to offer another explanation.
"It didn't click," Witt said as he tried to explain away one of Nifong's errors. "His mind is just his mind. That's the way it works. It just didn't click."
Along with accusing Nifong of withholding the DNA evidence and making misleading and inflammatory comments about the three athletes, the North Carolina State Bar said he lied to both the court and bar investigators. The committee found Nifong broke the state's rules of professional conduct more than two dozen times.
"I would say there are no winners in this scenario," said Kevin Finnerty, Collin's father. "With that said, I think there's closure. I think it's appropriate and I think it's justice.
"I think he brought it on himself."
The players' defense attorneys have pledged to seek criminal contempt charges next week in Durham from a judge who has already reminded Nifong he has the authority to impose punishment. They suggested the calls for a federal civil rights investigation were not out of line.
"I don't think any of us are done with Mr. Nifong yet," said Jim Cooney, Seligmann's attorney.
Nifong declined to comment Saturday while quietly slipping out of the courthouse through a side door, but his attorney had announced earlier — after the committee concluded he broke the rules — that Nifong considered disbarment an appropriate punishment. Nifong had already pledged to resign his $110,000-a-year job as district attorney, and he will not appeal.
"He hopes this helps restore some of the confidence in the criminal justice system of North Carolina," said his attorney David Freedman. "On one hand, it's very devastating. On the other hand, he's been going through this process for a long time, so you always have some semblance of relief when the process is over with regardless of the outcome."
That was perhaps never more apparent than Friday, when Williamson asked Nifong directly if he still believed the accuser was attacked. After pausing for several seconds, Nifong said that while he could not say whether she was sexually assaulted, "something happened to make everybody leave that scene very quickly."
The comment enraged the players' defense attorneys, and sent the mother of one player into the hallway outside the courtroom in tears. Williamson took special care Saturday to note that even though Nifong had apologized to the players and volunteered to give up his law license, he remains unable to agree that no lacrosse player committed a crime.
"In the face of a declaration of innocence by the attorney general of North Carolina, it appears the defendant still believes the facts to be one way and the world now knows that is not the case," Williamson said.