DURHAM, N.C. – A disciplinary committee rejected a request Friday to dismiss ethics charges against the former prosecutor in the Duke lacrosse case, who is accused of withholding critical DNA evidence from the defense.
The decision by the three-member panel came shortly after an hourlong hearing, at which committee chairman F. Lane Williamson repeatedly challenged the arguments made by attorneys for Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong.
"I just don't see where this gets you on your arguement to dismiss," Williamson said.
The North Carolina State Bar has accused Nifong with breaking several rules of professional conduct as he led the investigation into allegations three lacrosse players raped a stripper at a team party in March 2006.
This week, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper dismissed all charges in the case, and said the three players indicted were innocent and that his investigators concluded no attack occurred. In doing so, he portrayed Nifong as a "rogue" prosecutor who rushed the case by failing to verify the accuser's allegations.
"I don't want to make comments outside the courtroom," Nifong said after the hearing, surrounded by a swarm of reporters who following him down the street. "You'll have an opportunity to hear things I have to say inside the courtroom."
In January, after Nifong had turned the case over to Cooper's office, the bar accused the veteran prosecutor of failing to give the defense DNA test results that found genetic material from several men on the accuser's underwear and body, but none from any lacrosse player.
Nifong's attorneys denied he intentionally withheld the DNA evidence, saying he provided the defense with a report outlining test results months before a potential trial and gave notice the lab director would be called as an expert witness.
That shouldn't matter, said bar counsel Katherine Jean, because Nifong knew about the test results before he even won indictments against the three players. It's possible, she said, that with less capable defense counsel they might have chose to enter into a plea agreement, which is how the vast majority of criminal cases in North Carolina are resolved.
"It's scary when you think about a case like this case," Jean said. "These men might have pleaded guilty never knowing the DNA evidence was exculpatory. ... It's a scary concept."
The bar has also charged Nifong with lying to the court and to bar investigators, and for making misleading and inflammatory comments about the athletes under suspicion. Those issues were not addressed at Friday's hearing.
Nifong, who apologized to the three cleared players in a statement issued Thursday, could be disbarred if convicted. His ethics trial is scheduled to start in June. While there have been calls in Durham and elsewhere for Nifong to resign, his attorney said the veteran prosecutor has no intention of leaving office.
"Mr. Nifong was elected to be the DA of Durham County and he's served the people of Durham County for 29 years, and he intends to fulfill the duties he was elected to do," said his attorney, David Freedman.
Also Friday, a defense attorney retrieved the $100,000 bond posted by each of the former defendants, said Jermaine Patterson, head bookkeeper with the Durham County Clerk's Office. The players were originally released on $400,000 bond, though a judge reduced the amount to $100,000 for each player last June.
"The families of these young men want to see Mr. Nifong get what they believe he was ready to deny their sons, which is a fair hearing," said Brad Bannon, an attorney who represented one of the three players. "They don't want people rushing to judgment against him anymore than he rushed to judgment against their sons."