With tears streaming down his face, Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong announced he will resign his post in light of his disastrous prosecution of three Duke students for a gang rape that the state attorney general says never happened.
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"It is not fair for the people in my community to be represented by someone who is not held in high esteem by either the members of the community or the members of the profession,'' Nifong said from the witness stand, as his wife comforted the couple's crying son in the gallery. "It does not contribute to the cause of justice in general for me to serve as DA. … It is my intention to resign as DA of Durham."
The stunning announcement — following a year in which Nifong vigorously refused calls to drop an ever weakening case, and later, widespread calls to resign — capped an emotionally charged day of testimony in Nifong's trial before the North Carolina State Bar.
Nifong's announcement pre-empts his possibly forced removal from office. Punishment for the disciplinary violations he is accused of include disbarment, could have forced the longtime prosecutor to step down.
Nifong said he brought his son to court to teach him a lesson about taking responsibility for your actions.
"When I saw Mr. [Reade] Seligmann on stand today. … I thought his parents must be very proud of him. And I brought my son here to make sure he saw this so he can be proud of me."
Fighting to restrain his tears and speaking in a halting voice choked with emotion, Nifong denied repeatedly that he ever intentionally lied to further his case.
"The allegation that I am a liar is not justified. I felt that it was important to come before this commission and to defend myself against allegations that I ever misrepresented myself at any time.
"I have never done that and I would never do that. I have always — as my parents raised me — tried to do the right thing and I have always been willing to take responsible for the things that I have done and so I take responsibility in this case for any wrongdoing that might have been done. But I do not take responsibility for lying which I did not do … it's important for me to say this … I am very proud of my son and I want him to be proud of me and I felt it is important for him to see this … I was trying to do the right thing and I was going to come in here and defend my good name but it has become increasingly apparent during the course of this week in ways that it might not have been before that my presence as the DA in Durham is not furthering the course of justice — it is not fair."
"My presence as district attorney of Durham is not furthering cause of justice. Not fair for people of my community to be represented by someone not held in high esteem by either members of community or profession."
And despite widespread belief in the innocence of the players among fellow prosecutors, ordinary Americans and the Attorney General of his own state, Nifong said that he still believes something happened in the bathroom at the party that night.
If not a rape, Nifong testified, then perhaps a physical assault or act of intimidation. "Something happened to make people leave that scene so quickly."
In earlier testimony today one of the cleared Duke lacrosse players broke down in tears on a North Carolina witness stand today as he described the moment he learned he'd been accused of rape.
The tearful testimony continued as he described calling his mother and girlfriend to tell them the news. Across the courtroom in the gallery, his mother cried as well.
Reade Seligmann also testified that his father "fell to the floor'' upon hearing the news and that the family was forced to borrow $400,000 from a friend to mount a defense against the charges. He said he'd been the victim of death threats from people telling him he is a "dead man walking'' and recalled the enormous media attention that followed him everywhere he went.
On the witness stand on Friday, Nifong admitted that he "crossed the line" with some of his comments about the case, including calling team members "a bunch of hooligans.''
Nifong said he "either became confused about what was in the public record or maybe got carried away a little bit" in making comments he acknowledged today may be grounds for punishment.
He testified that he was busy at the time with an election campaign.
"I was involved in a political campaign, and very rarely did I see television coverage," Nifong said. "I saw a clip this week that I had not seen before. It made me cringe. It did not come across at all like what I was trying to do."
Seligmann testified that he told his father, "My life is over. I said, 'How do I tell mom?'"
Seligmann continued to cry as he described the phone call with his mother, Kathy Seligmann.
"I could hear her on the phone,'' he said. "The life was sucked right out of her. I just told her everything was going to be alright." He said he had a similarly emotional conversation with his girlfriend.
Nifong is facing charges of prosecutorial misconduct from the North Carolina State Bar for his handling of the infamous Duke rape case in which Seligmann, Collin Finnerty and David Evans have since been cleared of all charges. If found guilty, the veteran prosecutor could be disbarred and consequently removed from his office as Durham County district attorney.
Duke University released a statement welcoming Nifong's resignation, saying his conduct on the Duke Lacrosse case brought "great harm to these Duke students and their families, to the Durham community, and to Duke University and all who care about it."
Duke University President Richard Brodhead and his administration have been widely criticized for failing to stand by the Lacrosse Team when rape allegations first surfaced. Brodhead has also been attacked for tolerating a rush to judgment by Duke faculty members, 88 of whom issued a statement critical of the Lacrosse Team.
Nifong has previously acknowledged that he regrets some of the more inflammatory statements he made about the lacrosse players last spring to the local and national media, including calling the team members a "bunch of hooligans," but he maintains he did nothing intentionally unethical.
The charges he faces include withholding potentially exculpatory evidence, making inappropriate public comments about the case and lying to a judge and to state bar investigators. Two of those charges accuse him of making comments that would have a substantial likelihood of materially prejudicing a case or heightening public condemnation of the accused.
Last spring, in the midst of a tight election campaign against a popular former prosecutor, Nifong secured indictments against Seligmann, Finnerty and Evans, charging them with first degree forcible rape and kidnapping. A stripper hired to dance at an off-campus Duke lacrosse team party in March 2006 originally said she was held in a tiny bathroom, beaten and raped repeatedly by three men at the party.
Still furious, Duke defense attorney Joe Cheshire -- who led the campaign to prevent charges from being brought and later to have them dropped -- called Nifong's announcement "an obvious, cynical ploy to save his law license."
"His tepid apology to these people is far too little and comes far too late. I do not accept his testimony. He pursued these boys for month after month after month after month. He didn't give a damn about whether these boys were innocent. All he wanted to do was convict them."