DURHAM, N.C. – Mike Nifong spent nearly three decades building a reputation as an honest prosecutor. Yet he is seen today as a bane to peers, many of whom feel tarnished by his mistakes in the now-infamous Duke lacrosse rape case.
His colleagues at the courthouse in Durham remain at a loss to explain how it happened.
"It's still kind of difficult for me to see how we got here," said Woody Vann, a lawyer in Durham. "It is kind of a tragedy. He reached a certain height and ... he got presented with a matter that was just more than he could handle."
On Tuesday — more than a year after he took the lead in investigating claims three men raped a stripper at a March 2006 party thrown by Duke's highly ranked lacrosse team — the Durham County district attorney will stand trial on ethics charges ranging from lying to the court to withholding potentially exculpatory evidence.
Gone are the days when Nifong railed against the lacrosse team to every reporter and TV camera within earshot. Mocked in the press and by the public for his handling of the collapsed case, Nifong is keeping a low profile as he prepares for a fight that could end with his disbarment.
"On one hand, he's very anxious to go ahead and have the hearing so he can present the evidence about the allegations against him," said David Freedman, one of Nifong's two attorneys. "On the other hand, it's an extremely stressful situation for any lawyer to go through, especially at this level and profile."
If Nifong is acquitted, the case will have still taken a devastating toll on the career public servant who joined the Durham County prosecutor's office as a volunteer in 1978 after graduating from law school. He is all but assured to be remembered for pursuing a deeply flawed case with unyielding vigor while portraying himself as a crusader against privilege and racism at an elite private university.
Nifong confidently trumpeted he would not allow Durham to become known best for "a bunch of lacrosse players from Duke raping a black girl." He thundered away at the Duke players in numerous interviews, calling them "hooligans" and decrying a "blue wall of silence" when claiming they weren't cooperating with police. In fact, they largely were.
He traded barbs with defense attorneys in testy courtroom exchanges and pressed ahead even when it became clear his only evidence was the accuser's myriad accounts of an attack that state prosecutors would later conclude never occurred.
It wasn't until the North Carolina State Bar accused Nifong of violating several rules of professional conduct, including making misleading and inflammatory comments about the athletes under suspicion, that he turned the case over to state prosecutors.
More ethics charges followed, include allegations he withheld details of DNA evidence from the defense that showed several men's genetic material was found on the accuser — though none from a lacrosse player.
A few months later, State Attorney General Roy Cooper minced no words when he dismissed the indictments Nifong won against the three lacrosse players, calling Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty and David Evans "innocent" victims of a rogue prosecutor's "tragic rush to accuse."
"This case reverberates in every courtroom in Durham County," said Bill Thomas, a longtime Durham defense attorney who said he had a "healthy mutual respect" for Nifong until he took on an uncharged Duke lacrosse player as a client last year and became an outspoken critic.
"There is a tremendous sense of distrust, not only among the lawyers but also I think among the judges as a result of the behavior that has been demonstrated in the lacrosse case," Thomas said.
The effects are becoming evident. In February, a federal appeals court cited Nifong by name when commenting on what it considered to be misdeeds by government prosecutors.
On the Internet, Nifong's name had entered the lexicon as a verb meaning "to be railroaded" and as a noun synonymous for "unethical prosecutor." Dozens of prosecutors from across North Carolina showed up at the state Capitol to urge lawmakers not to cut funding to their offices because of Nifong's actions.
"It is affecting everybody," said Peg Dorer, director of the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys.
Nifong remains quietly defiant. He declined several requests for interviews in recent months, allowing his attorney to deny rumors that Nifong planned to resign. Nifong's last public comment on the lacrosse case came in a one-page statement released the day the case collapsed. In it, he apologized, but only "to the extent that I made judgments that ultimately proved to be incorrect."
His silence will end at the trial, where Nifong is expected to testify in his own defense.
Depending on the outcome, criminal charges could follow. A request remains pending in the Durham County court to remove him from office, on which the judge said he'll start a hearing shortly after the ethics trial.
The judge who oversaw part of the case has also reminded Nifong he could still impose a punishment.
That's all to come. But Nifong's reputation, some say, is already beyond redemption.
"It's how he's going to be remembered," Vann said. "Nobody knows anything about the previous 28 years. The cases he's tried and won, and the cases he's tried well and won. They're just not (going to be remembered)."