Exclusive Interview: Durham DA Mike Nifong Reacts to Primary Victory

This is a partial transcript from "On the Record," May 3, 2006, that has been edited for clarity.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, HOST: Durham County district attorney Mike Nifong wins the Democratic primary for DA. Mike Nifong joins us live from Durham.

Congratulations, sir, on your victory tonight.


VAN SUSTEREN: Have you gotten the final numbers in terms of what percentage you won, sir?

NIFONG: The numbers I saw showed me with about 46 percent, the closest opponent with about 41.

VAN SUSTEREN: Was this a cliffhanger, in your mind, sir? I mean, was this a tough day for you?

NIFONG: Well, the last month has been a little challenging, but I wouldn't say that today was particularly tough. The election came out actually about the way I would have predicted.

VAN SUSTEREN: You say in the last month. How long has this campaign been going on? When did you announce and really begin running in earnest?

NIFONG: Well, of course, we filed in February. I began running in earnest yesterday. The campaign has actually been mostly run by my campaign manager, my friends. My wife has had a lot to do with it. I've really had a lot of people that did all the major work in the campaign, so that I could concentrate on doing the major work in my office. So the campaigning really hasn't been that tough on me.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right. You say yesterday. I'm curious what you started to do.

NIFONG: I started getting ready for going around to all the polling places. We visited some of the polling places to put out signs at those places, and we actually kind of got geared up for today, which was the first day that I have had outside the office since I became DA a year ago.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right. Your opponent — your main appointment, Freda Black — have you spoken with her tonight? Has she admitted that you have won the election?

NIFONG: I haven't spoken with her. I was down at the main headquarters for the return of the election. I understand that she had a private party planned for another location, and I haven't spoken with anybody at that location.

VAN SUSTEREN: You know her professionally, is that right, sir? I mean, have you both worked in the same office for a while?

NIFONG: That's correct. We worked in the same office for about 14 years.

VAN SUSTEREN: Is it hard to run against someone who was once a colleague?

NIFONG: Well, as you probably know, after I became district attorney, I asked Freda to leave the office, and she did so. And I tried to campaign positively, based on my accomplishments over the last 27 years and my goals for the future and did not engage in any negative campaigning. And that's really all I have to say about that.

VAN SUSTEREN: Now, I know, sir, that you don't want to talk, though, specifically about the Duke case, the rape case, and I won't ask you. But I'm just curious, in terms of all the publicity that's been generated, did that have an impact on the campaign, do you think?

NIFONG: It may have. It's hard to measure what impact that would have had or, actually, if it had affected the election. I mean, I imagine that if I'd lost, people would have said that I lost because of the impact of that particular case. I don't know if that would have been the truth or not. It's just something we can't really know.

VAN SUSTEREN: Now, sir, this was a Democratic primary. Is there a general election and you're unopposed? Is that correct?

NIFONG: Yes, ma'am, that's correct. No Republican filed, so as the winner of the Democratic primary, I will run unopposed in November.

VAN SUSTEREN: And so I take it that there's no chance — your rules in North Carolina — no one can sort of jump into the campaign, at this point, or into the election for — as a Republican, at this point?

NIFONG: That is correct.

VAN SUSTEREN: Why do you like the job?

NIFONG: The hours. Actually, that's hard to say. When I was in law school, I knew that what I wanted to do was to be in the courtroom, and the best way to get started in the courtroom was to be an assistant district attorney. So that's a job that I looked for. And it actually was a much better job than I'd even imagined. I did that for 20 years and never considered doing anything else, and actually, probably would not be doing anything other than that right now, but for the fact that in 1999, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer and that put a temporary end to my courtroom career. It got me more involved in administrative matters in the office.

And it also kind of changed my perspective on things, and I decided that I could make a difference in a different way in the court system. It's always been important for me that the district attorney's office in Durham represent the absolute peak of ability and integrity, and that's been my goal, to keep the office that way. And I have hired the best group of people that's ever worked here, wonderful staff. I credit them a lot with my success on this job.

VAN SUSTEREN: Sir, a lot of DAs are more administrative, and some actually get back into the courtroom. Based on what you just said, are you sort of a hands-on DA but one who doesn't go into the courtroom anymore, or do you actually go into the courtroom and try cases?

NIFONG: Well, I haven't been in the courtroom in the last year because I haven't had a case that was assigned to me. Obviously, there is now a case that the national media has shown real interest in, that I have said is going to be my case, and I will be trying that one in the courtroom.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right. Will you think you'll be trying it alone or...

NIFONG: I've had...

VAN SUSTEREN: Go ahead, sir.

NIFONG: I will probably associate one of my assistant DAs with me in that case. I've tried 300 felony cases in my career. I've only associated somebody with me in two of those cases previously, but I will probably associate somebody with me in this case.

VAN SUSTEREN: How big is your office? How many assistant DAs?

NIFONG: I have 20 assistant DAs and 17 support personnel.

VAN SUSTEREN: Why did you make the decision...

NIFONG: So it's 37 people.

VAN SUSTEREN: Why did you make the decision to try this one? What is it about this — because you just said you expect to try this case with the lacrosse players. Why?

NIFONG: Well, I think that for some of the same reasons that the lacrosse case has captured the national media attention, it's captured the attention of the people in Durham in a way that it just seems to me that the issues that are touched on by this case are ones that the voters of Durham have a legitimate expectation that the elected district attorney will try that case for them. And I think that assigning it to somebody else would be to neglect those duties.

VAN SUSTEREN: When you walk down the street or you even go to the poll today to vote, do people mention the case to you, citizens?

NIFONG: Not directly. But everyone who did speak with me today said, I really appreciate what you've been doing, and I voted for you and I support you, or whatever. I did not have a single person come up to me today with any criticism whatsoever.

VAN SUSTEREN: How do you keep the lid on possible racial tension that may arise with this case, but we hope does not?

NIFONG: Well, I really think that the people of Durham have been somewhat underestimated by the national media in terms of that. I think that the citizens here have shown a tremendous amount of restraint so far, and I imagine they'll continue to. I mean, Durham is a place that is no stranger to tensions of various sorts. We have dealt with controversy in the past. We are a community that is very diverse. We have learned how to live together, how to work together and how to solve our problems together, and this case is really no different in that regard from many other cases. So I suspect that the predictions that some people have made that we'll have problems here in Durham are just not correct.

VAN SUSTEREN: If I were indicted tomorrow in your jurisdiction, how long before I'd get to trial, likely?

NIFONG: Well, I mean, in your case, obviously, there'd be a lot of media attention, and that would probably slow things down a bit. But for the normal case, we would expect that it would be — and of course, it would also depend on what you were indicted for. We would expect that most cases would not make it onto the trial calendar for about six months. And depending on the complexity of the case and the number of issues that were involved, we might be talking about a year. It would be my expectation, for instance, that the Duke case would likely come to trial next spring, although there's no way to be sure, at this point, exactly when that will be.

VAN SUSTEREN: Do you pay attention to all the media attention in this case, or can you sort of look the other way and just ignore all of us?

NIFONG: Well, you might not like this, but I don't watch television. I didn't really watch much television before, and I certainly stopped, as has my mother, I might add. And I really don't want to see myself on television. I do read newspapers and — but it's pretty easy for me to look the other way, unless the media are following me with their cameras stuck in my face, like they've been doing for the last few weeks.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right. You've talked about how much you seem to like the job. No job is perfect. So is there any rotten aspect to your job?

NIFONG: Well, you have to make a lot of tough decisions, and you're in a position where you can pretty much count on the fact that nothing you do is going to please everybody, and you're lucky if what you do pleases anybody. It's just not a job for the faint of heart. It's not a job for the thin-skinned. You have to be ready to take everybody's best shot. And it does wear you down sometimes, but I've been doing it long enough that I've developed kind of a thick skin.

VAN SUSTEREN: How about your family? I mean, because people who are in the public eye, especially you, you're under fire in some ways — it's oftentimes hard on the family. How do you keep your family protected?

NIFONG: Well, I don't really have to protect them. They're pretty good at protecting themselves. My wife is an extremely capable person. I'm sorry that she's not — sorry, actually, my wife and my son are not on camera with me right now, but — and my son is a 9th grader, also a very fine young man. And they have been a lot of help to me in this campaign, as they are in everything else that goes on in my life. I have a lot of wonderful friends. And I'm just a very lucky person to have as many things going for me as I have.

VAN SUSTEREN: Why do you think the voters voted for you and not Freda Black? What was it that you brought to them that you don't think your opponent did?

NIFONG: Well, I think, by far, I'm the best candidate. I have the most experience. I have the best ability. I have the best judgment. I have a real commitment to Durham, as evidenced by the fact that I've been here for 27 years and didn't move here just a few years ago so I could run for office. And the other thing that I think I bring that nobody else could bring was integrity.

VAN SUSTEREN: When do you think we are going to hear from you on the Durham case, specifically? When are you going to start filing motions, making statements — if indeed, you are going to?

NIFONG: I think that pretty much all the statements I make will be in court when the case is being heard. There will be motions hearings. I may, of course, file some motions. I may respond to some of the defense motions. I don't really anticipate making any public statements about the evidence in the case.

There have been a few occasions so far where the defense attorneys and some of their motions have crossed the line into what I would consider either incorrect statements of the law or just absolute misstatements of the facts, and I have responded just to let people know that the things that were being said were not facts in the case and to let people know exactly what the law was. But other than that, I don't really intend to make any extra-judicial statements about the case.

VAN SUSTEREN: One of the motions filed yesterday, sir, was asking that you be removed from the particular case. I assume you'll be responding in writing soon. Fair enough?

NIFONG: Actually, I don't imagine that I will respond in writing. That is something that we may calendar for hearing, at some point. Obviously, I'm not surprised that the defense attorney would want to remove me from the case because he doesn't want to try the case against me, and I don't blame him.

VAN SUSTEREN: Was that grandstanding and political, do you think, or was that a fair motion?

NIFONG: Well, I guess that whether the motion is fair or not will be decided by a judge. But in terms of the timing of the case, I would point out that the particular attorney involved is in the process of picking a jury in a murder trial, but he was still able to file this motion on the day before primary election. So you ask me where his attention is focused.

VAN SUSTEREN: So I take it, at this point...

NIFONG: It looks to me like...

VAN SUSTEREN: So I take it, at this point, it's not very collegial between the prosecution and the defense lawyers, at this point.

NIFONG: I haven't actually spoken to him. But I, generally speaking, let the defense attorneys kind of set the stage for how the collegial the relationship will be.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right. Well, congratulations, sir, upon your election. And thank you, sir.

NIFONG: Thank you.

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