Former Duke Prosecutor Nifong Disbarred

Authorities disbar Mike Nifong, who prosecution called "minister of injustice."

February 10, 2009, 5:54 PM

RALEIGH, N.C., June 16, 2007 — -- Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong has been disbarred after being found guilty of a battery of ethics violations for his handling of the Duke Lacrosse investigation, a North Carolina Bar disciplinary committee announced Saturday evening.

"We are in unanimous agreement that there is no discipline short of disbarment that would be appropiate in this case," said F. Lane Williamson, the committee's chairman.

Before the panel announced its punishment, Nifong said he believed disbarment would be appropriate and that he planned to waive all rights to appeal the findings of the bar panel, his attorney David Freedman said in court Saturday afternoon.

"He hopes that in light of his accepting his punishment it will restore some of the confidence in the criminal justice system," Freedman said. "You have some semblance of relief when this is all over, regardless of the outcome."

After announcing Nifong's punishment, Williamson excoriated the disgraced prosecutor. He said Nifong was driven to prosecute the Duke Lacrosse case out of "self-interest and self-deception."

"Sometimes character is called upon ... and it is found wanting," Williamson said. "That is what happened to Mr. Nifong."

The bar's three-member disciplinary panel unanimously found Nifong guilty of fraud, dishonesty, deceit or misrepresentation; of making false statements of material fact before a judge; of making false statements of material fact before bar investigators, and of lying about withholding exculpatory DNA evidence, among other violations.

Nifong's punishment could have ranged from a written reprimand to disbarment. He already announced Friday his intention to resign as district attorney.

With the panel's decision, the long saga of what was once known as the Duke Lacrosserape scandal may be largely over, though a raft of civil lawsuits are expected.

Nifong's conviction was widely anticipated as long-overdue justice for the three players who were indicted in spring 2006 on charges of rape, kidnapping, and sexual offense.

Last April, the three were cleared of all charges and declared innocent by the attorneygeneral of North Carolina.

All three exonerated Duke Lacrosse players -- Reade Seligmann, David Evans and Collin Finnerty -- were in the courtroom Saturday with their families. They listened intently as Nifong was found to have behaved unethically, but showed little emotion.

Later, as Nifong's disbarment was announced, there was an air of relief and satisfaction among the lacrosse players and their families.

"They are relieved and thankful," said Wade Smith, a veteran North Carolina attorney who represented the Finnertys. "While it doesn't take away the pain and it doesn't change anything, it helps these three boys feel as though they can go on with their lives," he said.

The three lacrosse players' families are moving on. David Evans found a new job in finance. His first offer was revoked after his indictment. Reade Seligmann will be attend Brown University this fall. Collin Finnerty will make a decision shortly about where to start his junior year.

Moving on won't be as easy for Nifong. Attorneys for the exonerated lacrosse players say they have more in store by way of legal action.

"I don't think any of us are done with Mr. Nifong yet," said Seligmann family lawyer Jim Cooney.

He announced plans to file a motion against Nifong in Durham County Superior Court within the week.

Brad Bannon, a lawyer for David Evans, said that motion would request that the court sanction Nifong with fines and contempt of court.

Nifong could also face civil lawsuits; Bannon's partner Joe Cheshire said on Friday that he expects "extensive civil action."

Lawyers are also pushing for an independent federal investigation into Nifong's conduct.

The mood at the trial Saturday was a remarkable reversal of the courtroom atmosphere in the early days of the case. Then, the parents of the players sat wide-eyed and stone-faced, occasionally shedding a tear, while the now-disgraced prosecutor moved through the court room smiling and navigated the camera crews outside in the hallway with a grin on his face.

Saturday, Nifong and his wife wept during a recess and held each other, clearly shaken, while the players and their families smiled and chatted with easily with one another.

As the first witness to testify in the penalty phase, David Evans Sr., whose son Dave was charged, described being "floored" when he heard Nifong tell the media that the players were not cooperating fully with the investigation.

He described how his family learned of his son's indictment on Dave's graduation day, and testified that his son's job offer from the Wall Street firm J.P. Morgan was withdrawn after the charges were brought. He said he recently "Googled" the phrases "Dave Evans" and "Duke Lacrosse," and that the search turned up more than five million hits.

Evans said his son and the other players "stepped up to the plate'' and cooperated fully with investigators. He said that Nifong has now acknowledged he "crossed the line'' of ethical conduct and "maligned an entire team -- 47 players, their parents, their grandparents.''

David Evans Jr.'s grandfather on his mother's side died of a heart attack last August before the charges were dropped, Evans Sr. said.

"It was very very hard on him,'' Evans Sr. testified. "He took it very, very hard. He couldn't understand. He was consumed with the case. As it moved along he would call several times a day. He'd say, 'Why is this district attorney going forward? Look at all this information? The accuser is not credible. Why isn't the system working?'

"Our great regret is that [the grandfather] died before the system worked," Evans Sr. said, "before he was found innocent."

In a statement that seemed to both echo and mock Nifong's tearful claim Friday that the case will be associated with him until he goes to his grave, David Evans Sr. told the court that his son, too, "believes that when he dies, people will say he was one of the three Duke lacrosse players who was accused of rape."

Next up was Colin Finnerty's mother Mary Ellen Finnerty, who said that after 26 years as a parent, learning her son was indicted for rape and kidnapping was "the hardest moment as a mother I have ever had."

"We were in the fight of our lives,'' she said. "We now had to fight to save our son's life. From that day on that was our job as parents. How do you explain to a 10-year-old that her brother has been indicted for rape?'' she asked rhetorically.

When her son's name was finally cleared in the wake of an investigation by North Carolina State Attorney General Roy Cooper, "it was an answer to all our prayers," she said.

"Nobody can give the families back the 14 months we've gone through,'' she said, and began to cry. "Laying in bed at night and saying that they could go to jail for 30 years for a crime they didn't do."

During closing arguments Friday, attorney Doug Brocker of the North CarolinaState Bar said Nifong engaged in a "systematic abuse of prosecutorial power and discretion in the Duke Lacrosse case."

"Mr. Nifong did not act as a minister of justice, but as a minister of injustice," Brocker added.

Brocker argued that the central motive for Nifong's decision to prosecute the case was winning a tightly contested election for district attorney. Just after the first indictments in the case, Nifong won a May 2 Democratic primary by a margin of 3 percent.

In his closing statements, Nifong's attorney Dudley Witt admitted that Nifong committed "egregious mistakes" but said his "was not intentional conduct."

Witt also denied Nifong's use of the case to further any political agenda. He specifically cited Nifong's lack of experience in dealing with the media and argued that Nifong didn't realize until December 2006 that the withheld DNA was significant to the case.

Ann Fawcett, a friend of the Nifong family who attended the trial, called him "an honorable man of great integrity."

Nifong's nearly-30-year career as a prosecutor ended over the DukeLacrosse case. During his testimony Friday, Nifong tearfully announcedthat whatever the bar's choice of punishment he intended to step downas Durham County district attorney.

"My presence as the district attorney in Durham is not furthering thecause of justice," Nifong said. "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 thecommunity or members of the profession."

Nifong also apologized to the three indicted lacrosse players andtheir families.

But defense attorney Cheshire dismissed Nifong's contrition as contrived and insincere.

Nifong led the prosecution of three Duke Lacrosse players for rape and sexual assault. The case began in March 2006 when woman hired to strip at a team party accused three players of attacking her in a bathroom. In the months that followed, the casefell apart, riddled by a lack of evidence and an accuser who changedher story repeatedly.

From the early days of the case, Nifong was widely criticized for hishandling of the matter. On Friday, Nifong admitted to manymistakes.

"I think clearly some of the statements I made were improper," Nifongsaid, admitting that his comments about the case violated the rules ofprofessional conduct. "I take responsibility for the things I have done in this case."

Nifong also admitted that he should have given defense attorneys allavailable DNA evidence months earlier than he did. He addedthat despite her changing story, Nifong never pushed the accuser toexplain the inconsistencies in her version of events.

By getting disbarred, Nifong lost not just his law license, but his livelihood. Unable to practice law, it's unclear what kind of work, if any, Nifong will do next.

But wherever he goes, Nifong expects the words "Duke Lacrosse" will follow him.

"I will go to my grave being associated with this case," said Nifong. "That's okay. ... I took the responsibility on myself."