Duke Prosecutor Nifong Preps for His Own Trial

Disgraced Duke prosecutor could face a suspended license, or disbarment.


April 30, 2007 — -- The three Duke lacrosse players once charged with rape are off the hook. But the man who brought the case against them, Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong, faces a trial of his own in June.

The North Carolina Bar Association has charged Nifong with mishandling the Duke case, violating rules of ethical conduct by withholding evidence, lying to a judge and making inappropriate comments about the case to the press.

Even Nifong's friends expect the punishment to be severe -- anything from suspended his law license to permanent disbarment. Either way, Nifong would lose his seat as district attorney.

"Given the climate, the way the AG came out… I can't envision a scenario where he doesn't end up losing his license or having it suspended," said Bob Nauseef, a criminal defense lawyer in Durham.

Nauseef, who has been in touch with Nifong over the past week, says the district attorney is focused on preparing his defense. Even so, Nifong is mindful of the fact that he could soon be out of a job.

"There are wheels in motion for life after the DA's office, if not life after the law," Nauseef told ABC News.

"He's got some other things in the hopper. I've heard he's looking at teaching jobs. It wouldn't surprise me if he wrote a book."

"He'll be prepared to deal with any outcome that comes from the Bar," Nifong's lawyer David Freedman told ABC News. "That being said, he's a fighter."

Defense attorneys for the accused Duke players and other critics began questioning Nifong's actions after the Duke case first emerged in March 2006. By January 2006 the State Bar had charged Nifong with "conduct that involves dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation" and "conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice."

Months later, during an April 11 press conference marking an end to the Duke lacrosse case, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper called Nifong an overreaching "rogue prosecutor" who displayed "bravado" in a "rush to condemn."

Nauseef saw the attorney general's comments as overly harsh -- a move to curry political support and popularity.

"I agree that there were mistakes made, but I was pretty surprised by the strength of what they came out with," Nauseef said.

"It was pretty scathing. It's politics."

Many of Nifong's critics have called for him to step down as district attorney before his ethics trial. Beth Brewer, a Durham citizen and political rival of Nifong's, filed court documents asking Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson to remove Nifong from office.

Other district attorneys have distanced themselves from Nifong, pointing to his conduct as an example of what prosecutors should not do with a case.

"Mr. Nifong has not brought respect to our profession," said Josh Marquis, a prosecutor and ranking member of the National District Attorneys' Association. "Some of his actions have brought great disrepute on the profession of prosecution."

Nifong does have supporters, among them prosecutor Stormy Ellis. Ellis, who works for Nifong in the Durham district attorney's office, questions the critics.

"Everyone was on the bandwagon at first, criticizing the lacrosse team. Then the winds shifted and everyone's on the bandwagon to beat Mike [Nifong] up," she told ABC News.

"It makes me wonder how they've handled cases, how they've dealt with adversity in their own cases… it's all Monday morning quarterbacking."

In defending Nifong, Ellis also faulted his critics for ignoring his roughly 30 years of public service.

"He's a good man and one of the most honest people I know. People fail to look at the man who convicted numerous criminals, who dismissed numerous cases, who had an open-file policy before it was the law," she said.

"I'm shocked that he has been tainted as a 'rogue prosecutor.' It scares me to think that one case can mar you for the rest of your life."

For now Nifong has no intention of leaving office, his lawyer told ABC News. But if he is found guilty at the June 12 hearing Nifong could be left with no choice other than to leave his seat. The entire trial including the sentencing phase is expected to last four days.

Until then, Nifong can only wait as the drumbeat for his removal keeps pounding.

"He's definitely worried about what's going to happen," Nauseef told ABC News. "There's that feeling that he'll be made an example of."